Sen. Tom Harkin delivers farewell speech after 40 years - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Sen. Tom Harkin delivers farewell speech after 40 years

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Senator Harkin delivers final speech on Senate Floor Senator Harkin delivers final speech on Senate Floor
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After 40 years of serving Iowa in the United States Congress, Sen. Tom Harkin has delivered his final speech on the Senate floor.

"Leaving becomes hard and wrenching and yes, emotional. That's because I love this U.S. Senate. I love this work."

Harkin won his election to the Senate in 1984 after also serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for ten years.

Iowa voters re-elected him in 1990, 1996, 2002 and 2008.

Harkin announced he would not run for another term in January 2013. 

Here is a full transcript of his speech:

“Almost two years ago I announced I was not going to seek a sixth term in the United States Senate. That decision and announcement did not seem all that difficult or hard at that time. Two years was a long time off. And since then I have been busy working, having hearings, meeting constituents, getting legislation through the HELP Committee, working on Appropriations.

“But now – knowing this will be my final, formal speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate; “Now – knowing that in a few days a semi-truck will pull up to the Hart Senate Office Building and load hundreds of boxes containing forty years of my Senate and House records and haul them off to Drake University and the Harkin Institute of Public Policy and Civic Engagement in Des Moines;

“Now- seeing my office in 731 Hart stripped nearly bare; Now – when I will soon cast my last vote; “Now – when I will no longer be engaged in legislative battle, when I will no longer be summoned by the Senate bells, now- when I will soon just be number 1,763 of all the Senators who have ever served in the U.S. Senate;

“Now – the leaving becomes hard and wrenching and yes, emotional. That's because I love this U.S. Senate. I love this work. It has been said that the Senate is broken. No, it's not broken. Oh, a few dents here and there. Some scrapes. Banged up a little. But, there is still no other place in America where one person can do big things – for good or for ill – for our people and our nation.

“I love the people with whom I work: Senators, staff, clerks, Congressional Research Service, doorkeepers, cloakroom, police, restaurant employees…. and yes, pages. Especially to those who labor outside the lights and cameras and news stories: who make the Senate function on a daily basis, I thank you.

“I particularly want to thank my wonderful, hardworking, dedicated staff, both present and past, both personal and committee staff. And when I say committee staff, I mean the Appropriations sub-committee on Labor, Health and Human Services, which I have been privileged to chair or be ranking member since 1989. I mean also the Committee on Agriculture, which I chaired twice for two farm bills, once in 2001-2002, and in 2007-2009, and I mean the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions which I have chaired since the untimely death of Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009.

“I first heard Senator Pat Leahy say this, so I always attribute it to him: that we Senators are just a constitutional impediment to the smooth functioning of staff! This is truer than most of us would like to admit. Also, in thanking my staff, I don't just mean those who work in Washington.

“I would never have been re-elected four times without the hands on, day in, day out, constituent service of my Iowa staff. The casework they have done in helping people with problems is every bit as important as any legislative work done here in Washington.

“In 2012, our office marked a milestone. The 100,000 constituent service case we have processed since 1985. I cannot count the number of times Iowans have personally thanked me for something my staff had done to help them. I didn't get here by myself. My staff helped.

“So, I thank my staff of past and present who have so strongly supported me when I was right, so diplomatically corrected me when I was wrong, and who all labored in a shared commitment to provide a hand up, a ladder of opportunity, to those who had been dealt a bad hand in the lottery of life. I ask consent to list the names of my present staff, so they will forever be enshrined in the history of the U.S. Senate.

“But most of all, I thank Ruth, the love of my life, my wife of forty-six years. You have been my constant companion, my soul-mate, my strongest supporter, and my most honest critic. You have been my joy in happy times, and my solace when things just didn't go right. I'm looking forward to more adventures, love, and excitement with you in the years ahead.

“To our two beautiful, smart, caring and compassionate daughters, Amy and Jenny: I thank you for always being there for your dad, for giving me such wondrous joy in being a part of your growing up. I am so proud of both of you. And to my son-in-law Steve, and my grandkids McQuaid, Daisy, and Luke – look out – because here comes grandpa!

“There is so much I want to say, but I want to be respectful of those who have come to share this moment with me – my staff, family, friends, fellow Senators. I want to state as briefly as I can why I'm here, my guiding philosophy for the past forty years. It has to do with that ladder of opportunity I mentioned. A ladder – not escalator. A ramp -- not a moving walkway.

“Not one nickel or dime in the ADA is given to a person with a disability. But we broke down barriers, opened doors of accessibility and accommodation, and said to people with disabilities – Now go on, follow your dreams, and in the words of the Army motto, “be all you can be.”

“Government must not be just an observant bystander, it must be a force for good, for lifting people up, for giving hope to the hopeless.

“I've never had an “I love me” wall in my office. What I did have were two items on the wall by the door so I would see them when I walked out to go vote, or to a hearing, or working on a bill. One was a drawing of the house in which my mother was born and lived to the age of twenty-five when she came to America. It was a small house in the village of Suha, Yugoslavia, now Suha, Slovenia. That house had a dirt floor, no running water.

“The second item on my wall is this – my father's WPA card from 1939. My father had a 6th grade education, worked many years in coal mines, was 53 years old in 1939, out of work with five kids and one on the way: me. There were no jobs. Things looked hopeless. Then dad, as he related to me years later, got the letter from Franklin Roosevelt giving him a job. So dad got some income, and the dignity of meaningful work. But most importantly, our government gave him hope. Hope that tomorrow would be better. That his family would be okay. That his kids would have a better future.

“Every federal judge takes an oath to “do equal right to the poor and to the rich.” Can we here in the Congress say we do that? That we provide equal right to the poor and rich alike? Our growing inequality proves we are not. Maybe we should be taking that oath.

“There are four overriding issues that I hope this Senate will address in the coming session. Number one, as I mentioned, the growing economic inequality in America. It is destructive of lives, it slows our progress as a nation, and it will doom broad support for representative government. When people at the bottom of the economic ladder feel the government is not helping them and in fact may be stacked against them, they will cease to vote, or will turn to the siren song of extreme elements in our society. History proves this to be true.

“I don't have a cookie –cutter answer or solution, but it must include more fair tax laws and trade laws, more job training and retraining, rebuilding our physical infrastructure, and manufacturing. And I believe it must include some things, seemingly unrelated, like quality, free, early education for every child in America.

“The answer to closing the inequality gap must include rebuilding labor unions and collective bargaining. If you trace the line over the last 40 years of our growing economic inequality and put that over another line showing the loss in the number of union workers, they are almost identical. I do not believe it is a stretch to say that organized labor, unions, built the middle class in America, and they are a part of the answer in strengthening and rebuilding our middle class.

“Another part of the answer is raising the minimum wage to above the poverty line and inflation indexing it for the future. We also need new flex time laws especially for women in the workforce. We need to strengthen Social Security as in Senator Brown's bill. We need a new retirement system for all workers. Not another 401(k) , but a system in which employers and employees contribute, which can only be withdrawn as an annuity for life after one retires, like the Netherlands has. Lack of a reliable retirement is one of the most under reported, unexamined crises on our national horizon, and is a big part of our growing inequality.

“Finally, we must continue to build on the Affordable Care Act. The cost and availability of good health care has in the past widened the inequality gap. We are now starting to close that element of inequality. We need to add a public option to the exchange as another choice for people. And we must continue support for prevention and public health – moving us more and more away from “sick care” to real “health care.”

“The second overriding issue is the destruction of the family of man's only home – planet earth – thru the continued use of fossil fuels. We know what's happening. The science is irrefutable, the data is clear, the warning signs are flashing in bright neon red: “stop what you are doing with fossil fuels.” We must shift massively and quickly to renewable energy, a new smart electric grid, retro fitting our buildings for energy efficiency, and moving rapidly to a hydrogen based energy cycle.

The third issue I commend to the Senate for further development and changes in existing laws is the under employment of people with disabilities.

“As you all know, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities has been the major part of my work in the Senate for the past 30 years. We have made significant strides forward in changing America to fulfill two of the four goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These two are full participation and equal opportunity.

“The other two goals - independent living and economic self-sufficiency - need more development. I ask you all in the next Congress to do two things to advance these two goals of independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

“First, help states to fully implement the Supreme Court's Olmstead decision, to more rapidly de-institutionalize people with disabilities and provide true independent living with support services. This will save money, and individuals with disabilities lives will be better and more truly independent.

“Secondly, we must do more on employment of people with disabilities in competitive, integrated employment.

We get the monthly unemployment figures. Last month unemployment held steady at 5.8% officially, but Leo Hindery has better calculations to show the real rate is twice that figure. Also, we know that unemployment among young African-Americans is 11.1%.

“But how many of us know that the unemployment rate among adult Americans with disabilities who want to work and can work is over 60%?! Yes, you heard me right: almost two out of three people with disabilities cannot find a job. That is a blot on our national character.

“Thankfully, some enlightened employers have affirmative action plans to hire more people with disabilities. Employers are finding that many times these become their best employees – they are more productive, the hardest working, most reliable workers.

“I ask you to meet with Greg Wasson, CEO of Walgreens, and Randy Lewis, who was Senior V.P., now retired. Walgreens has hired many people with disabilities in Walgreens' distribution centers, and now has set a goal of 10% of their store employees will be people with disabilities. There are others making strides in this area: Best Buy, Lowes, Home Depot, IBM, and Marriott - to mention some other large companies moving forward in hiring people with disabilities. We need to learn from them what we – the federal and perhaps state government – can do to help in this area. We also need to implement policies to help small businesses employ more people with disabilities.

“I dwell on this because perhaps I feel I haven't done enough on this issue of employment for people with disabilities, and we just have to do better. I will say, however, that our HELP Committee passed this year and President Obama signed into law, a new re-authorization of the old Workforce Investment Act, now named the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act. In the law, there is a new provision I worked on to get more intervention in high school for kids with disabilities to prepare for the workplace through summer jobs, job coaching, and internships.

“However, this is just starting, and funding is tight, but it will do much for young people with disabilities to enter competitive, integrated employment. I want to thank all members of the HELP Committee for their support of this bill, but especially Senator Murray and Senator Isakson for taking the lead to get the bill done – along with Senator Enzi, Senator Alexander, and me.

“And while I am mentioning the HELP Committee, let me thank all members for a very productive last two years, during which we passed 24 bills signed into law by the President. Important bills dealing with drug track and tracing, compounding drugs, WIAO – which I mentioned, Child Care Development Block grant, among others.

“I want to thank Senator Alexander for being a great partner in these efforts. He will be taking the helm of this great committee in the next Congress. Senator Alexander certainly has the background to lead the committee, combined with a keen mind and a good heart. I wish him continued success as the new Chairman of HELP.

“The fourth issue concerns the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

“I don't think anything has saddened me more in my 30 years here than the failure of the Senate to ratify the CRPD. This convention was modeled after our own Americans with Disabilities Act. It has been ratified by 150 nations. It has broad and deep support in our country, supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, veterans groups, every disability organization, every former living President, every former Republican leader of the Senate: Senator Dole, Senator Lott, and Senator Frist. In November, we received a letter of support from the National Association of Evangelicals. I also want to point out that Senator Dole has worked his heart out on this. I hope the next Senate will take this up and join with the rest of the world in helping make changes globally for people with disabilities.

“So, I came to Congress – the House – in 1974 as one of the “Watergate Babies.” With my retirement and the retirement in the House of Congressman George Miller and Congressman Henry Waxman, we are the last of the “Watergate Babies,” with 2 exceptions. Among all the Democrats elected in 1974 there were a few Republicans, and one is left: my senior colleague from Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley. I have great respect for and friendship with, Chuck. Several weeks ago, here on the floor, he said some gracious things about me. I especially appreciated his observation that, though he and I are like night and day when it comes to our political views, there is no light between us when it comes to Iowa. We have collaborated on so many important initiatives for the people of Iowa, and we made a heck of a good tag team on behalf of our state. So again, I salute and thank my friend and colleague of nearly 40 years, Chuck Grassley. The other exception is my dear friend Rick Nolan, who was in the 1974 class, voluntarily left Congress after 3 terms, then returned to the House in 2012 and was recently re-elected.

“So, 40 years later this “Watergate baby” is grown up and grey. I came to the Senate 30 years ago as a proud progressive, determined to get things done. And as I depart the Senate, I can say in good conscience that I remained true to my progressive roots. I have worked faithfully to leave behind a more vibrant Iowa, a more just and inclusive America, and a stronger ladder – and ramp – of opportunity for the disadvantaged in this great country.

“You might say that my career in Congress is the story of a poor kid from Cumming, Iowa trying his best to “pay it forward”, saying thank you for the opportunities I was given by leaving that ladder and ramp of opportunity stronger for those who follow.

“If I have accomplished this in any small way, if many Americans are able to lead better lives because of my work, I leave office a satisfied man.

“So, I am retiring from the Senate but I'm not retiring from the fight. I will never retire from the fight to ensure equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities.

“I will never retire from the fight to give a hand up – and hope to those who have experienced disadvantage and adversity. And I will never retire from the fight to make this a land of social and economic justice for all Americans.

“Let me close with a single word from American sign language that has a powerful message for all of us. Let me teach it to you. (PAUSE to sign “America” in American Sign language). This is the sign for America. All of us, inter connected, bound together in a single circle of inclusion with no one left out. This is the ideal America toward which we must always aspire.

“And with that Mr. President, for the last time, I yield the floor.”

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