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Harkin Reflects on Long, Productive Career

As the lame duck session of the U.S. Senate drew to a close last week, Iowa’s retiring Democratic Senator, Tom Harkin, took a few minutes to look back at his 40-year career in Congress.

From the very beginning, after he was elected to the House in 1974, Harkin began serving on the Agriculture Committee.

“Iowa’s an agricultural state. It’s the basis of our whole economy,” Harkin told “I wanted to see what I could do to broaden the support for agriculture. Being on the agriculture committee was not just for farmers but for small towns and for nutrition.”

Unlike his Republican Iowa counterpart, veteran Senator Chuck Grassley, Harkin did no grow up on a farm. But his background is solidly rural. He was born in Cumming, Iowa, where his father was a coal miner.

Harkin still owns his family home there, a two-bedroom house where he and five siblings grew up. A few years ago Harkin invited a reporter to visit the restored house at the edge of town. Sitting on the back deck, he pointed outthe sites of long-vanished fruit trees and the hog pen that helped sustain the family.

Harkin may be best known for his Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that prevents discrimination against the disabled. During his career he introduced more legislation related to health issues than any other topic. Yet, his second most productive area was legislation for agriculture and food, according to the nonpartisan website, Ballotpedia.

Harkin is proud of his work as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee when the 2002 and 2008 farm bills were written. He told that he was most pleased with work in three areas: conservation, renewable energy and better nutrition for low-income elementary school students.

In the 2002 Farm Bill, he introduced the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a working lands program aimed at rewarding farmers for using soil and water saving practices and encouraging them to add to those improvements. It was changed slightly and renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program in the 2008 law and continued in the 2014 Agricultural Act.

“I’ve long felt that it was way past time to quit paying famers for what they grow and how much they grow and to pay farmers for how they grow it, to pay them for being good stewards of the soil, for clean water, and for making sure we have wildlife habitat.” Harkin told

The 2002 farm bill boosted spending on conservation and today, more than 60 million acres are enrolled in the CSP, making it larger, in acreage at least, than the conservation reserve program, which is limited to 26 million acres in 2015.

“Also in the 2002 farm bill we put together the very first energy title,” Harkin said. Part of that title included measures to support bioenergy that were introduced by both Harkin and former Senator Richard Lugar, and Indiana Republican.

The Energy Title included the Rural Energy for America program, which provided grants for making farms, ranches and rural small businesses more energy efficient. It has financed more than 10,000 cost-share projects. For a time, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also used REAP funds to help co-ops install blender pumps to sell several levels of ethanol-gasoline blends. Ethanol opponents in Congress later prevented REAP funds from being used for blender pumps.

Harkin is also proud of his work to get fresh fruits and vegetables into low-income schools with a program begun in the 2002 farm bill. It was expanded in the 2008 farm bill, which invested $1 billion over 10 years for the initiative, allowing it to serve as many as three million low-income children.

Harkin also had disappointments in his career. They included “the fact that we had to go through years of the direct payment program, which I think wasted a lot of taxpayers’ dollars and encouraged farms to get bigger and bigger,” he said.

Harkin added that he understands that technology and other forces normally encourage farms to expand in size, but he didn’t think the federal government should have had a policy with the effect that “if you’re bigger, you get more money. That never should have happened.”

Also, even though he supported farm bill amendments with Grassley to limit farm program payments to modest-sized farms, farm legislation to date has done little to close loopholes.

“We never really got a good payment limitations. We should have,” Harkin said.

A third shortcoming: “I wish we could have done more to have halted the concentration in the food industry,” he said.

That disappointment extends to the Obama Administration doing little to change issues of concentrated market power in agriculture after the USDA and Justice Department held a series of listening sessions on the subject. Harkin added that Congress limited USDA’s ability to carry out changes in that area, as well.

Overall, though, “I don’t have that many disappointments. I really don’t,” he said.

Harkin, one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, could not have been more different from his conservative Iowa colleague Grassley, yet in the final days of the Senate’s session, both men complimented each other for the work they’ve been able to do for their state.

When asked to name some of their best work for Iowa, Harkin responded, “Where do I begin here? All of the energy stuff we’ve done. We’ve gotten over $2 1/2 billion for renewable energy.”

Both men cooperated, too, on funding for rural development in Iowa, and on a key federal highway, U.S. 20, that is now four-lanes wide across most of the northern half of the state.

“A lot of money we’ve gotten for Highway 20 together, we never would have gotten except for him working his side (political party) and me working my side,” Harkin said.

When asked to rate the Agriculture Secretaries he’s worked with, Harkin said.

“They’ve all had their strengths but I’ve got to tell you, I think the person who’s done more for the Department of Agriculture and elevated it and is getting it to do more is the one we’ve got right now, Tom Vilsack. I think Tom Vilsack has a broader perspective on agriculture than about any secretary of agriculture I’ve seen.”

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