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 realized he had neglected to show off a prized possession — his father’s Works Progress Administration card.
It’s the role of government policies like the WPA that have guided the progressive Iowa Democrat’s career.
The Depression-era WPA was one of the progressive planks of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harkin is very much in the mold of the generation that followed FDR. But Harkin has shown a knack, not unlike the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, 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 will say he’s been fortunate.
At a recent bill signing, President Barack Obama praised Harkin and his GOP counterpart, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for their Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee getting 21 measures to his desk this Congress.
“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 Harkin made early on set the course for his 30-year Senate career.
Harkin, who opted to retire rather than 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 (IDEA). Those laws changed not only the way the public treated individuals with disabilities, Harkin said, but also 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 told CQ Roll Call. (One of the reporters conducting this interview 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,’” Harkin said.
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