Harkin's Rise Gives Labor a Boost

Washington Matters

Harkin's Rise Gives Labor a Boost

The ascension of Tom Harkin, Democrat from Iowa, to the chairmanship of the Senate Heath, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee was somewhat of a surprise. Most Hill watchers expected Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who served as interim chair during Sen. Ted Kennedy’s illness, to continue in that capacity; especially since health reform legislation is at such a critical stage in the Congress. But Dodd chose to stay at Banking, giving Harkin a chance to put his priorities on the front burner.

Harkin, with blue-collar roots as the son of a coal miner, is cut from the same liberal cloth as Kennedy, firmly believing in the role of government to help those in need. One of his biggest legislative achievements was passage of the American with Disabilities Act.

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Harkin’s  two top legislative priorities today are the same as those of organized labor: Comprehensive reform of the health care system and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, commonly referred to as card check.  An original sponsor of card check, which would make it easier for unions to organize, Harkin has been in deep negotiations for months with other senators, trying to put together a compromise that can pass the Senate.


Harkin is also a staunch proponent of wellness and prevention programs and he’ll push this in any final health reform package. His Healthy Workforce Act would provide a 50% tax credit for companies that offer a comprehensive wellness program to their workers. 


Enhancing his position as chairman of the HELP committee is the fact that he is also chairman of the Appropriation subcommittee that writes the budget for the Departments of Health & Human Services, Education and Labor. This dual role makes him one of the most powerful members of the Senate, with influence over the policy and the purse strings of key parts of the domestic agenda. 


He gives up the top spot on the Agriculture Committee to accept the HELP committee post. While heading up the Ag Committee, Harkin had the reputation of being a pragmatist, often crossing party lines to produce a bipartisan compromise.