As congress faces a Thursday deadline to pass a federal budget plan, Senator Tom Harkin is in the middle of the negotiations, focused on health-care-related spending, but he’s not regretting his decision to retire at year’s end.
“Yeah, I’m going to miss it, sure, because I enjoy this. I enjoy being a enator. I love the senate, It’s dented a little bit, banged up a ittle bit, but it’s still functional,” Harkin said during an interview Friday on IPTV. “…But, again, it’s time for me to move on. It’s time for me to retire. It’s time for young people and new people to come in.”
The current federal spending plan expires this Thursday, December 11. Harkin thinks congress may vote for a one-week delay that keeps the current spending levels in place, then vote next week on a long-term, comprehensive spending plan.
Harkin’s voluntary exit from the senate comes 42 years after he first sought to enter congress. Harkin ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, but lost. He ran again in 1974 and won.
“In my first political campaign I spent $20,000. Now that was kind of a wave year. That was an anti-McGovern wave year. Two years later the wave went the other way with Watergate. I think in that year I spent a little over $100,000 in winning a congressional seat,” Harkin said. “Think about that compared to today.”
Nearly $62 million was spent on this year’s battle between Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley to claim Harkin’s seat. After 10 years in the U.S. House, Harkin won the Iowa senate seat in 1984 and defeated three Republican congressman along the way to stay in the senate. He’s served as chairman of the Ag Committee and lead drafting the Farm Bill and he’s currently chairman of the committee that helped draft the Affordable Care Act, but Harkin called passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act the “premiere” accomplishment of his political career.
“I’ve been very blessed and the people of Iowa have given me the opportunity to stay there long enough to see what it has done to this country,” Harkin said. “It’s amazing the changes that have been made.”
Harkin plans to take a two-month-long vacation, then return to Iowa in March for work at the Harkin Institute which was established at Drake University last year.
“The Institute at Drake is totally bipartisan. We have a bipartisan board. In fact, I have a former chair of the Iowa Republican Party on the board. I have Republicans on the board,” Harkin said. “I want it to be a totally non-partisan entity and Drake has set it up that way.”
One of the Harkin Institute’s panel discussions this past summer featured both Harkin and Republican Governor Terry Branstad. Archivists from Drake University and the U.S. Senate have been working in Harkin’s office over the past few months, starting the process of converting Harkin’s work papers from 40 years in congress to a digital forum.
“Once in a while they come across some very interesting tidbits, shall we say, of legislationa nnd letters and things like that that I had forgotten about long, long ago,” Harkin said. “I’m sure there’ll be some surprises.”
All that material will be stored at Drake and a semi will transport between 400 and 500 boxes of documents from D.C. to Drake at the end of this year. The Iowa Democratic Party faces big decisions after election losses last month, but Harkin — who has been the party’s top elected official — plans to focus on what he calls the “bipartisan” work at the Harkin Institute rather than steer selection of a new party chairman in January.
“I am a Democrat and I love my party and I want them to have good policies and good candidates, so I hope to be supportive in some way, but I don’t intend to be any kind of ‘godfather’ or something like that,” Harkin said.
Harkin’s annual “Steak Fry” fundraiser has been a launching pad for Democratic presidential candidates over the years. Bill and Hillary Clinton were the speakers this past September at what was billed at the time as the final Harkin Steak Fry.
“People are talking to me about maybe revisiting that, ‘Never again,'” Harkin said, laughing. “…Stay tuned on that one.”
If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, Harkin believes she’ll have competition from people like former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Harkin’s wife, Ruth, endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Harkin has offered Clinton some advice about running in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
“I said: ‘Don’t just go to Des Moines or Waterloo or Cedar Rapids or Dubuque. Go to the rural areas. Start out in smaller communities in Iowa,'” Harkin said. “‘Let them know you care about rural America and small towns and communities. You can get to the cities later on, but plant your flag in rural Iowa.'”
Harkin ran for president himself in 1992. The experience taught him what a “complex country” we live in and it made him a “better senator.”
“Honestly, I really wasn’t prepared to run for president. I hadn’t really spent a lot of time thinking about it before. I’d thought about being a senator or being a congressman and I was really just focused on Iowa,” Harkin said. “…I think I could have been a pretty decent president, but I wouldn’t have had another happy day in my life.”
Video of Harkin’s weekend appearance on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program is posted here.