Elected: 1984, term expires 2014, 5th term.
Born: November 19, 1939, Cumming
Education: IA St. U., B.S. 1962, Catholic U., J.D. 1972
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1972–74; Staff aide, House Select Cmte. on U.S. Involvement in SE Asia, 1973–74.
Family: married (Ruth) , 2 children
Tom Harkin, a Democrat first elected to the House in 1974 and the Senate in 1984, is a pugnacious progressive who brings the attitude of the aggrieved outsider to his work. He announced on Jan. 26, 2013, that he would not seek a sixth term in 2014. “It’s just time to step aside,” the 73-year-old senator said.
Harkin grew up poor in a rural town; his father was a coal miner, and his mother, a Slovenian immigrant, died when he was just 10. He worked his way through college and law school before spending five years in the Navy during the 1960s ferrying planes out of Vietnam for repair. In 1970, as an aide to Democratic Rep. Neal Smith of Iowa, Harkin returned to Vietnam and discovered the infamous “tiger cages.” America’s allies, the South Vietnamese, used these underground cells to hold and torture prisoners of war. (A young Harkin slipped past prison guards on a guided tour to confirm the existence of the secret cells.)
Two years later, Harkin ran for a House seat and lost narrowly; he tried again in 1974 and won. In that campaign, he invented “work days,” a concept widely imitated since: He spent a day working at each of a dozen local jobs to better understand people’s experiences. He held the seat with solid percentages in four reelection contests. In 1984, he challenged Republican Sen. Roger Jepsen in the midst of a farm depression in Iowa. Harkin’s support of subsidies for farmers contrasted Jepsen’s advocacy of free market solutions to economic woes. Jepsen was also vulnerable going into his first reelection after voting in favor of selling Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft to Saudi Arabia, a sale that Israel staunchly opposed. He also came across as arrogant for claiming special privileges as a senator after being stopped for driving alone in high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the highway. Harkin won with 55% of the vote.
Harkin took over the reins of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in September 2009 after the death of longtime committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The move gave Harkin substantial impact on health policy and the Obama administration’s health care initiative. After Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye died in office in December 2012, Harkin had the opportunity to chair the Appropriations Committee, but chose to stay at HELP. He chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Education, giving him enormous power over both the policy and purse strings of a sizeable segment of the government.
In March 2012, Harkin introduced the sweeping “Rebuild America Act” to great fanfare from liberals. The measure combined many of his legislative priorities—overhauling the tax code, boosting spending on infrastructure and other areas, implementing fair-trade laws, and refashioning laws and regulations affecting middle-class families. At the same time, Harkin proposed a new privately-run pension plan to function as a supplement to defined contribution plans. With President Barack Obama signaling a greater inclination toward liberalism in his second term, Harkin was expected to push for the White House to adopt many of his ideas. “We’re not getting to the root of our problem,” he said in unveiling the Rebuild America Act. “We need a more serious dialogue about the essence of our economy.” His interest in protecting the middle class led him to become one of just eight senators to oppose the New Year’s Day 2013 deal on taxes and spending aimed at averting the so-called fiscal cliff, which he said didn’t adequately address job creation for that demographic group.
On a more practical level, Harkin was able to move a number of bipartisan bills out of his committee in the 112th Congress (2011-12). Among them was the first rewrite of the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law. The bill, which was co-sponsored by HELP ranking Republican Michael Enzi of Wyoming in September 2011, was developed after Harkin and other lawmakers became irked that the Obama administration was granting waivers to states on some of the law’s key provisions. School groups said they were pleased that the Harkin-Enzi legislation reduced the federal role in school accountability, but civil rights and business groups joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan in criticizing it, and it went no further in the Senate.
Harkin long has had a hand in health care issues. Two of his sisters died from breast cancer and one brother died from thyroid cancer; another brother became deaf at age 9. Harkin was a key player in shaping the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a major achievement and one that required a bipartisan coalition to overcome resistance to the cost and qualms about the real-world fallout of the regulations. He has been a prominent supporter of alternative medicine, prompted by his own experience taking bee-pollen capsules to successfully cure his allergies. He was instrumental in establishing an Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in 1992. He also strongly backs preventative medicine, and added a provision to the 2010 health care overhaul to boost doctor training and insurance coverage of preventive services.
Harkin was the chairman of the Agriculture Committee from June 2001 to January 2003, an advantageous assignment for a senator from a farm state. He regained the post in January 2007 when Democrats took control of the Senate (although he gave it up to take over the HELP Committee). In both stints, Harkin controlled the gavel during reauthorization of the all-important farm bill. He steered to passage the 2002 farm measure, a considerable achievement because he fashioned a bill to restore subsidies phased out by the Republicans’ 1996 Freedom to Farm Act. The legislation ultimately increased, but limited, subsidies for grain and cotton and doubled the money for conservation over 10 years. For the 2007 bill, control over the final negotiations on the farm bill that year shifted to farm-state members of the Senate Finance Committee after Harkin’s critics insisted he was too protective of his pet programs. But eventually most of his programs were included in the bill: federal support for ethanol, more money for nutrition programs, modest caps on subsidies, and a renamed Conservation Stewardship Program. Harkin enthusiastically backed the 2012 Senate-passed bill, which extended a requirement he championed that requires federal agencies to give a preference to bio-based products in making procurement decisions.
Harkin has been the Senate’s leading advocate of better nutrition and fitness for children, and he is a crusader against childhood obesity. He achieved many of his goals in 2010 with the enactment into law of a child nutrition bill that gave the Agriculture Department authority to set nutrition standards for foods sold in school vending machines as well as at snack bars and cafeterias. During the 2010 lame-duck session of Congress, he also played a central role in getting into law a food safety bill that some supporters had abandoned any hope of passing. Harkin and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., won admiration from consumer activists for steering the measure around a variety of Republican objections and parliamentary obstacles.
Harkin has had more difficulty with another of his leading priorities—the Employee Free Choice Act, the so-called “card check” bill to require an employer to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign union authorization cards in place of holding secret ballot elections. He devoted much of 2009 and 2010 trying in vain to win the support of skeptical centrist Democrats. The Republican takeover of the House in 2011 had the effect of putting the effort on ice. He got involved in another cause that had trouble picking up bipartisan support—reforming the Senate’s filibuster rules. He first took on the idea in 1995, and in 2013 joined other Democrats in unsuccessfully proposing changes that included requiring senators to actually talk at length on the floor if they filibuster rather than the current practice of simply threatening to filibuster.
On foreign policy, Harkin’s views have been shaped by the Vietnam War. He was a vocal opponent of the Persian Gulf War resolution in 1991. But he voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 1998, when President Bill Clinton sought it and again in 2002, when President George W. Bush requested congressional approval to use force against Iraq. But as the violence continued, Harkin said in 2003, it “may not be Vietnam, but, boy, it sure smells like it.” In 2004, he said abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq reminded him of the tiger cages in Vietnam and concluded, “It’s time to fire the secretary of Defense.” When Obama in 2011 proposed withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan by 2014, Harkin said the plan wasn’t nearly aggressive enough. At the same time, the senator in March 2012 blasted the Pentagon’s decision to cut hundreds of jobs at the Air National Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing based in Des Moines.
As an appropriator, Harkin is generous to Iowa and defended spending earmarks before the Senate ban took effect in 2011. As he said in November 2006, “I happen to be a supporter of earmarks, unabashedly. But I don’t call them earmarks. It is congressional directed spending.” One of his initiatives drew attention in March 2009 when several Republicans complained about $1.7 million for swine odor and manure management research at Iowa State University. Harkin invited one of the Republicans, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, to visit Iowa farms to smell the problem firsthand.
Harkin has been a major force in Iowa politics. He takes advantage of his state’s critical role in presidential elections, hosting an annual steak fry that is a required stop for Democratic candidates for all the national media attention it commands. His fervent stands on issues and his hard-edged campaigning give him a large base of loyal supporters as well as strong detractors. In his career, he has beaten no fewer than five members of Congress while rarely topping 55% of the vote.
He ran for president in 1992. With Truman-esque zest, Harkin preached that incumbent President George H.W. Bush and the Republicans helped only the rich and that government must get involved to help the poor and middle class. Organized labor withheld an early endorsement despite his 90%-plus AFL-CIO voting record—a great tactical victory for rival Bill Clinton, then the Arkansas governor. Harkin’s sweep of the Iowa caucuses on February 10 was mostly discounted as a home-field advantage. He finished with only 10% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, and when he got just 7% in South Carolina on March 7, he quit the race.
In 2002, Harkin faced a serious challenge from Republican Rep. Greg Ganske, a Des Moines plastic surgeon. Ganske argued that his work in the House regulating health maintenance organizations showed that he could find bipartisan solutions to problems. Harkin attacked Ganske for supporting Republican proposals to partially privatize the Social Security fund and touted passage of the farm bill. Polls showed the race fairly close in the summer. Harkin had far more money and, for the first time, the endorsement of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. He won 54%-44%.