There were 500 of the truest-believing Iowa Democrats outside the ballroom doors waiting to get in, but Tom Harkin had one more story to tell, even as an aide tugged his sleeve and admonished, “Tom, you’ve got a lot of people here that want to see you.”
Harkin is retiring from the U.S. Senate after 40 years in Washington and last Friday night he was inducted into the Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame, an honor he seemed to cherish no less for the fact that many — Republicans, conservatives, tea party faithful — would see the moment as no crowning achievement.
After the doors opened, and the plates of chicken and mashed potatoes were cleared away, Harkin served up the kind of carnivorous rhetoric — shots at the billionaire Koch brothers, jibes at the “Neanderthals and cave men” of the far right — that is typical partisan banquet fare.
Before the doors opened though, as the empty ballroom swam in purple and lavender and little lights twinkled overhead, Harkin was in a more reflective mood. He looked back at the Washington he knew when he arrived in 1974 as a member of the House, and what the Senate has become since he was elected 10 years later.
He was loath, Harkin said during a long conversation, to lapse into a misty reverie on better days, the way some old fogy might. But, the 74-year-old Harkin said, things were better back when.
More than anything, more than argument or intellect, “legislation, good legislation, good things where you really work things out and reach good compromises, depend more on personal relationships,” Harkin said. “And those personal relationships have broken down in the U.S. Senate.”
Small point: There used to be a room on the first floor of the Capitol where senators would gather alone for lunch — no staff, no reporters — and Republicans and Democrats would sit together and talk and swap stories and become familiar with one another on a more personal level.
Those lunches are no more, due in part to the way the Senate now operates.
Lawmakers typically convene for a few “bed-check votes” on Monday night and wrap up their Capitol workweek before sundown Thursday. Lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays are now partisan affairs, Democrats and Republicans dining separately with their party colleagues. That leaves Wednesday. “But that’s the day you have a fundraising lunch,” Harkin said.
Like the old biblical injunction, he sees money at the root of much that ails Washington, the political culture in general and the Senate in particular. The truncated schedule, he said, is a function of the constant need to raise money for the ever-increasing cost of campaigning.
“Schlepping from here to New York to L.A. to Chicago to New Orleans to Miami to, my God, I don’t know where,” Harkin said. “Ten thousand here, 20,000 there, 15,000 there.” He noted each denomination with a rap of a gnarled knuckled on the black tablecloth in front of him. “Boy. I don’t miss that.”
His solution: get back to a lengthier workweek and end the Senate’s dilatory tactics, including most especially “the damned filibuster,” by allowing lawmakers to slow down but not kill legislation by talking it to death. In return, he would give the minority the unconditional right to offer as many germane, or specifically relevant, amendments as it wished.
And, he said, he would bring back those informal, bipartisan, members-only lunches.
“It created an atmosphere of conviviality and ... we’d actually go out to people’s houses and have dinner. Hell,” he said, “that hasn’t happened in the last 20 years I’ve been in the Senate, 15 years maybe.”
Regrets? Harkin, who made an unsuccessful try for the White House in 1992, paused. “You can ask me that question sometime before the election,” he said after about 10 seconds. “I don’t know yet. I don’t know yet.”
Harkin, an unvarnished liberal, has long been a champion for the disabled, inspired by his late older brother, Frank, who was deaf. Harkin was instrumental in passage of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark bill — think of those sidewalk ramps for wheelchairs, braille in elevators and the like — signed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush.
Harkin has spent years pushing for U.S. ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which seeks to make America's access laws a worldwide standard. The treaty has been approved by 141 countries and is backed by the White House and a number of prominent Republicans as well as major business, disability and veterans groups.
But some conservative activists, home-schooling advocates and anti-abortion groups say the treaty would surrender power to the U.N. and allow the international organization to overreach and impinge on the rights of Americans.
The most recent ratification effort failed during a December 2012 lame-duck session of Congress. The measure won 61 votes, short of the two-thirds majority required for passage in the 100-member Senate. Harkin hopes for another try in July, around national Disabilities Awareness Day. “God, I hope we have the votes for that,” Harkin said.
By now, impatient staffers were pressing in on the senator. First, however, Harkin had that one other story to share.
In 1999, he was working with the Clinton administration for Senate approval of a U.N. treaty on child labor. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was led at the time by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an unstinting conservative and fierce critic of the U.N.
Harkin went to see Helms one day. “I had to sit and listen to probably, without exaggeration, a good 10-minute monologue on how awful the U.N. was” before he could even start his pitch, Harkin said with a small laugh. "So I just grit my teeth."
Eventually, Helms came around in part, Harkin suggested, because of the personal relationship the two ideological adversaries shared. The treaty passed the Senate unanimously, Helms included, and was signed into law by Clinton.
“You ask me how things have changed,” Harkin said, finally yielding to his importuning aide and rising to greet well-wishers. “There’s one for ya.”
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