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Sen. Tom Harkin, Special Education Champion, Says Goodbye

By Lauren Camera — December 12, 2014 5 min read
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Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who championed education equality and the rights of people with disabilities during his nearly four decades in Congress, gave his farewell speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate Friday morning.

“Now seeing my office at 731 Hart office stripped almost bare and the shelves cleaned, 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 just be number 1763 of all the senators who have ever served in the U.S. Senate, now, now the leaving becomes hard and wrenching and emotional,” he began.

Harkin, who is retiring at the end of this year, is slated to cast his last vote on Saturday, when the Senate takes up a spending bill to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, its last chore before it adjourns sine die.

Harkin sits at the top of both the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—which oversees education legislation—and the Senate appropriations subcommittee that deals with K-12 funding.

Special education has been a big focus for Harkin, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, then the Senate in 1984. He was a key author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was first enacted in 1990. The landmark law required buildings and public transportation to be wheelchair-accessible, and called for accommodations for people with disabilities in the workplace.

And, year after year, he’s sought to provide full federal funding for the IDEA, which covers the cost of educating students in special education. His efforts on the issue have been inspired in part by his late brother, who was deaf.

Harkin, who grew up the youngest in a family with six children and whose father worked in the coal mines of southern Iowa, said that his time in Congress and his legislating philosophy have always been guided by the need to ensure a ladder of opportunity exists for those who want and need it.

“It’s been said by a lot of pundits that the Senate is broken,” Harkin said. “No, it’s not. The Senate is not broken. Oh, maybe a few dents, a couple of scrapes here and there, and banged up a little bit. 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.”

But he didn’t have all kind words for the most deliberative body in the world.

After noting that every federal judge who is sworn in takes an oath to “do equal right to the poor and to the rich,” he asked his colleagues, “Can we here in Congress say that we do that? That we provide equal right to the poor and the rich alike? Our growing inequality proves that we are not. Maybe we should be taking that oath.”

And with that, he left the next Senate with a hefty to do list:

First on that list is to grow economic equality through more fair tax and trade laws, job training and retraining, investment in infrastructure, quality, free, early education for every child, strengthening of labor unions, and overhauling the retirement system.

Second on the list was to move toward a hydrogen-based energy cycle in order to prevent the destruction of planet Earth: “The warning signs are flashing in neon bright red,” he said. “Stop what you’re doing with fossil fuels.”

Harkin also charged the next Congress with passing legislation that would allow people with disabilities to live more independently and be more economically self-sufficient.

“How many of us know that the unemployment rate among adult Americans with disabilities who can work and want to work is over 60 percent,” he asked. “Almost two out of every three Americans with a disability who want to work and who can work cannot find a job. That is a blot on our national character.”

Harkin underscored that the recent update of the federal workforce training law, which he helped author and which includes a new provision that prepares high school students with disabilities for a career, is a good start. But he pushed his colleagues to look at new hiring practices of Walgreens, Best Buy, Loews, Home Depot, and Marriott, all major corporations that have increased their hiring of people with disabilities.

Notably, reauthorizing the outdated No Child Left Behind law was not on his to-do list, though Harkin and others have been trying to overhaul the law for years now.

His address was not without that Midwestern, old-timey charm that characterized so many of his past speeches: “There’s a story out our way that I’ve heard for a long time,” he began. “If you’re driving down a country road and you see a turtle sitting on a fence post you can be sure of one thing, it didn’t get there by itself. I can relate to that turtle. I didn’t get here by myself.”

And with that entrée, he thanked his Senate colleagues, staff, and family.

“I love the people I work with,” Harkin said as he signed the words ‘I love you.’

“My career in Congress is the story of a poor kid from Cumming, Iowa, population 150, trying his best to pay it forward ... by leaving that ramp and ladder of opportunity stronger for those who follow,” Harkin said at the conclusion of his speech. “If I have accomplished this in any small way ... I leave office a satisfied person.”

As he concluded his speech, he remembered that once in 1990 he gave an entire floor speech using only sign language, and explained that he wanted to close his remarks with “one of the most beautiful signs.”

“Put your fingers together and put your hands together,” Harkin instructed, holding his hands up in front of his face for everyone to see. “It looks like an ‘A.’ Move it in a circle in front of your body. This is the sign for America.”

“Think about it,” he said. “All of us interconnected, bound together in a single circle of inclusion. No one left out. This is the ideal America toward which we always, always aspire. And with that, for the last time, I yield the floor.”

This frame grab from video provided by C-SPAN2 shows Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, giving his farewell speech Friday on the floor of the Senate in Washington. -C-SPAN2/AP

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