Harkin is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in his Capitol Hill office. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
At the end of an extended interview in his Senate office, Tom Harkin called out into the hallway, having neglected to show off a prized possession — his father’s Works Progress Administration card.
For the progressive Iowa Democrat, it’s the role of government policies like the WPA that have guided his career.
The Depression-era WPA was one of the progressive planks of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the heartland Democrat is very much in the mold of the generation of those who followed FDR. But, Harkin has shown a knack, not unlike the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, for working with Republicans when he needs to get a bill across the finish line.
Some of that, of course, depends on having a willing partner across the aisle, and on that front Harkin himself will say he’s been fortunate.
At a recent bill signing, the HELP Committee’s getting 21 measures to President Barack Obama’s desk won praise from the president himself for Harkin and GOP counterpart Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
“Well, that’s because you and Lamar are some pretty productive legislators who actually have focused on getting stuff done,” Obama said of Harkin’s recent successes.
Two deals with senior colleagues that Harkin made early on really set the course for his Senate career.
Harkin, who opted to retire instead of seek a sixth Senate term, agreed to join what was then the Education and Labor Committee, after the liberal lion Kennedy offered to create a disability policy subcommittee and hand Harkin wide latitude. That helped lead to the signature Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Those laws changed not only the way the public treated individuals with disabilities, but also Harkin said the way many viewed the world.
“The way I describe the ADA generation is that kids that were born after that — or in your time coming of age — that their expectations changed. In the old days, if you had a disability and you were a child … you just were told not to expect a heck of a lot. Barriers were there: educational barriers, work barriers, transportation barriers, attitudinal barriers, some of which still exist. But, you just had lower expectations,” Harkin said in an interview in his personal Senate office that included a reporter who was among the first beneficiaries of IDEA.
“Kids that grew up with [Individualized Education Programs] and with access and support services and things like that are now saying, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t want lowered expectations.’”
The bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, one of the HELP Committee’s big success stories this Congress, aims to improve on the transition from school to work for individuals with disabilities.
“We haven’t been preparing them to do that in the past,” Harkin said. “A lot of times the kids with IEPs, they get through, and they sort of just drop off the edge. They haven’t been given summer jobs, job coaching, internships. They haven’t been taken to colleges.” Full story