January 29, 2013

Government for the People

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Last summer I interned in the Labor Policy Office of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions of which Senator Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman. Towards the end of the summer, one of my fellow interns asked the Senator if, knowing what he knows now, he would change any of the decisions he had made throughout his career. Senator Harkin chuckled and said, “Well, I’d hope that I wouldn’t change a thing; I would like to think that my moral compass hasn’t gone too far astray during my 40 years in public service.”

In a time when the American populace has lost respect for Congress faster than “Gangnam Style” went viral, it was truly unbelievable to hear a legislator be so earnest about his desire to do actual good from his position of power.

On Saturday, Senator Harkin announced that he will not seek reelection. Senator Harkin is one of the few remaining political figures whose legislative agenda has not been guided by special interests, a looming reelection campaign (though he certainly cares about his constituents – earlier this year his office logged its 100,000th constituent case) or the desire to inhibit another political figure from being reelected.

Harkin’s legislative agenda has consistently been decided by the needs of the people. He’s not the only “for the people” legislator left, but he certainly is part of a very small group that in two years, when Harkin leaves office, will be even smaller.

During his many years in public service, Harkin has advanced the rights of individuals with disabilities, provided funding to maintain modern schools and access to healthier communities, combatted child labor and worked to strengthen the middle class. Last summer, Harkin proposed the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012, and unveiled a plan to solve the retirement crisis that includes a bold proposal to rebuild the private pension system. His forward-moving agenda is in stark contrast with a Republican Congress who struggled to reach a Fiscal Cliff deal because so many legislators made a pledge to Grover Norquist to never vote to raise taxes.

Oh, and let’s not forget that time when House Republicans refused to schedule a vote on relief funds for the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Chris Christie said it best, “Last night, politics was placed before oaths to serve our citizens. For me, it was disappointing and disgusting to watch.”

I never imagined I would say this – especially given my complete disbelief that Christie has become a political powerplayer – but we need more people like Tom Harkin and, dare I say, Chris Christie. It’s time for politicians to start standing up for what is right and actually legislating, rather than just blocking progress left and right. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the partisan nonsense on the hill.

The women in the Senate have it figured out. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said, “Anytime I have tried to get things done and been successful, it’s been with the help of a Republican woman.” Remember when the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed? Well, let’s all thank Gillibrand her Republican partner in crime, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), for that victory.

In two years, the Senate will have lost Tom Harkin, one of the greatest legislators in recent history (ahem, Americans with Disabilities Act, Rebuild America Act, a plan to solve the retirement crisis and much, much more…check out his track record – I guarantee you’ll agree with my assertion).

Even though Congressional employees, interns and visitors will definitely miss the free popcorn found in Senator Harkin’s office every afternoon, it’s important to note that his retirement does not mean the end of real progress. Political figures who put their energy into serving their constituents rather than pandering to special interests, and who will even risk ruffling some feathers in their own party a la Chris Christie, still exist and they want their voices heard.

I’m optimistic about the future of our Congress, and I think the record number of women in Congress all but guarantees a more functional federal government.

But, for now, let’s hear it for the boys and give Senators McCain (R-AZ), Schumer (D-NY), Rubio (R-FL), Durbin (D-IL), Menendez (D-NJ), Flake (R-AZ), Graham (R-SC) and Bennet (D-CO) a round of applause for their groundbreaking Bipartisan Immigration Plan. As Rick said at the end of Casablanca, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Original Author: Jaime Freilich