When Tom Harkin became chairman of the powerful Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in 2009, he declared that he would “carry on the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy,” who managed to wheel and deal his liberal politics into federal legislation during his two-decade sway over the committee as chairman and ranking minority member. But these days, the Iowa Democrat and former presidential aspirant can’t carry his own torch, much less that of his more-successful predecessor.
Harkin’s obsessive joint effort with the Obama administration to crack down on for-profit colleges, the fastest-growing and most-innovative sector of the nation’s higher education system, has descended into a quagmire. Even as Harkin launched into his latest jeremiad against for-profits on the Senate floor last Thursday, he and his staff found themselves under the microscope after an e-mail obtained by the Daily Caller asserted that they placed pressure on the Government Accountability Office — the nonpartisan agency charged with objectively investigating government spending — to churn out an error-filled report released last August that purportedly showed that 15 for-profit colleges “made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” and engaged in “fraudulent practices” such as falsifying data on student loan applications. The GAO sheepishly (and quietly) revised the report three months later after the errors were revealed. (Mark Hyman detailed the problems with the report earlier last January.)
His push for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, whose infamous “card check” provision banning secret votes on forming and disbanding unions is championed by labor activists within Democratic Party ranks, has fallen by the wayside amid fierce opposition from Republicans and centrist Democrats. The DREAM Act, another bill championed by Harkin that would allow undocumented immigrant children (most of whom were brought over by their parents) to stay in America for six more years while completing college (and obtain student aid in the process), is stuck in legislative limbo thanks to the much-wider debate over immigration reform. While Harkin plans to bring the legislation up for committee hearings this year, the chances of it being passed are slim to none.
Harkin can’t even get any traction on the one piece of legislation that should be easy for him to gain Senate and House passage: The reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of federal education policy — and the nation’s school reform effort — that is the hallmark and best part of Ted Kennedy’s otherwise overly-liberal political career (and that of his more-conservative counterparts at the time of its passage, now-Speaker John Boehner and then-President George W. Bush). While Harkin has promised to have a new version of the bill ready for Senate consideration by next month, he has made little headway toward that goal. And given the divide between centrist and liberal Democrat reformers and the teachers unions who have long opposed the law’s prescription of standardized tests and holding schools accountable for improving student performance, it may never happen.
It isn’t as if Harkin hasn’t been successful in getting any legislation passed during his four-decade political career. After all, he introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act, whose rules requiring wheelchair-accessible entrances have been the scourge of every conservative, landlord and architect. But its passage in 1990 had less to do with Harkin than with Kennedy, who could count on full Democrat control of Congress and the help of longtime friend, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.
For most of his career, Harkin has been better-known for his faux populism, grandstanding for left-leaning causes, and ensuring that agri-giants such as DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred division continues to collect generous subsidies, than for any substantial legislation. The son of a coal miner who spent five years ferrying damaged aircraft as a naval pilot before joining the staff of longtime Iowa congressman Neil Smith in 1969, Harkin first gained fame in 1970 when photos he took of the notorious Con Son Island prison in helped swing public opinion against the Vietnam War. After knocking off Roger Jepson to win his current Senate seat, Harkin has spent the next three decades attempting an unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination, voting to censure George W. Bush over the Iraq invasion, hustling for ethanol subsidies, and championing efforts to bring back the Fairness Doctrine (to better shut down those pesky conservatives and libertarians he with whom he constantly spars).
Harkin also became one of the first congressional politicians to get called on the carpet for exaggerating his military service record. After the late David Broder recounted Harkin’s declaration that he flew reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War in his 1981 book, Changing of the Guard, Harkin was confronted by Sen. Barry Goldwater and the Wall Street Journal. Harkin later admitted that he never saw combat. The revelations would dog his first senatorial campaign and contributed to the failure of his presidential run.
Although Harkin helped carve up federal higher education spending and criticized for-profits as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he never showed much interest in education. He also had a powerful spot chairing the Senate’s agriculture committee that has pleased his fellow Iowans. So Harkin wasn’t exactly expected to take over the Senate’s education and labor panel in 2009 after Kennedy died from his long battle with brain cancer. But another famed Senate dealmaker expected to take over the spot, Christopher Dodd, stepped aside (and ended his re-election campaign) after fallout from the financial industry bailout (and the passage of Dodd-Frank). Harkin took the spot and got to work.
Failure for Harkin came early — and often. His push to ensure the public option in the Affordable Care Act couldn’t overcome centrist Democrat opposition. The Employee Free Choice Act, one of the last bills co-sponsored by Kennedy, didn’t even see the light of day; neither he nor Reid could muster enough votes to overcome Republican threats of a filibuster. So Harkin moved on to an issue of greater personal interest: Cracking down on for-profit colleges, the former backwaters of higher education that now educate 12 percent of the nation’s undergrads. As the Obama administration moved to restrict the sector’s federal student aid-driven revenue growth by enacting the Gainful Employment rule, Harkin sought to further embarrass the sector with a series of hearings on the low quality of for-profit courses and the fact that for-profit students account for 44 percent of all student loan defaults.
But in the process, Harkin and Obama ran afoul of activists within their Democrat base — including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the National Urban League — which have long supported the sector. Revelations that FrontPoint Partners money manager Steve Eisman (who was shorting the stocks of for-profit college and had testified before Harkin in August) met with U.S. Department of Education officials three months before the agency released the new rule, along with news about the errors in the GAO report, also proved embarrassing. These problems, along with Republican control of the House, all but ensure that Harkin’s push for further crackdowns will fail. (The author will profile the politics driving the crackdown on for-profits next month in Organization Trends, a monthly newsletter published by the Capital Research Center).
Meanwhile Harkin has given little attention to the protracted debate over reauthorizing No Child, the one legislation that, in theory, could be passed with bipartisan support. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan — who want to put their stamp on federal education policy and advance their own reforms — are particularly interested in getting a new version of the law passed this year. But as with so much Harkin has touched, the effort has turned to mud. At least it’s largely not his fault. Democrats are divided as efforts by the NEA, the AFT, and other defenders of traditional public education want to weaken the law’s accountability provisions, which have helped expose the abysmal quality of America’s woeful traditional public schools (and have helped lead to the array of reforms and overhaul efforts Obama, big-city mayors, and governors such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker have put into place over the past two years). Obama and Duncan are willing to go along with some of this. But the centrist and liberal Democrat reformers who, along with conservative counterparts, are in control of federal education policy oppose any retrenchment.
Harkin should be able to count on his Republican counterpart in the House, John Kline, who shares common cause with the NEA and AFT on gutting No Child, to get things moving. No dice. Kline himself faces problems from freshmen Republicans on the education committee more concerned with ending ObamaCare than with education policy, and battles with Republican governors who have successfully leveraged No Child to enact their own school choice and reform efforts. Kline also has an obstacle in the form of House Speaker Boehner, who worked with Kennedy to craft No Child when he was Education committee chairman; movement conservatives interested in keeping Democrats from scoring a legislative victory, fiscal conservatives who just want to cut education spending, and conservative backers of No Child such as former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Sandy Kress (who masterminded the law) also stand in the way.
By the time the next Congress is seated, Harkin will have little to add to his well-crafted biography. That may not be good for Harkin or for the left-leaners who want him to be the next Teddy Kennedy. But it will be for taxpayers and children.