Retired Iowa senator Tom Harkin served ten years in the House of Representatives and thirty years in the Senate, making him the sixth most senior senator and most senior junior senator before retiring in 2015. Before entering politics, he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and has since served twenty-seven years in the Civil Air Patrol. He served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and sat on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, the Committee on Appropriations, and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. His most notable accomplishments during his time in Congress were the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act to the Senate and the passing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. The Gate’s Danielle Schmidt sat down with Harkin, a spring fellow at the Institute of Politics, to discuss his work in human rights throughout his time in Congress.
The Gate: You have long been at the forefront of calling out human rights issues: the Americans with Disabilities Act, raising the minimum wage, health-care, supporting women’s reproductive rights, the fight against child labor in Africa, and the list goes on. On what issue or challenge that you have taken up do you think you have made the most impact?
Tom Harkin: In my first term in the House, through an odd set of circumstances, I was able to get an amendment adopted on the foreign aid bill as a freshman congressman. Interesting story behind it: it conditioned our economic aid, and lately our military aid, on a country’s observance of internationally recognized human rights, codified in the United Nations convention on human rights. That was in 1975, and it’s still a part of the law today. People wonder whether it’s really being observed or not, but it’s still the law. Right now, the Department of State annually puts out a survey of human rights globally that’s based on the fact that we had this amendment in the law. I didn’t stipulate they had to do a report, but they had conditions, and out of that grew this survey that they publish in a book every year. So that was pretty significant.
In terms of human rights, I think that my work in the cocoa fields in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire over the last fifteen years has yielded some pretty good progress. We’re getting kids out of the cocoa fields, or at least getting them schooling and setting up systems where they can work on weekends or later in the day, but not as a substitute for going to school. It’s not perfect, but the Harkin-Engel Protocol has really done some pretty good stuff.
Gate: There have also been some critics of these human rights bills that you have worked on. When you are defending these policies, what line of reasoning do you use? Do you only appeal to ethics and morals, or do you also use economics and historical data?
Harkin: I think most of it is ethical, and based on what we as a country have espoused as certain inalienable rights. Even though our past has been checkered—slavery, Jim Crow, women can’t vote—the progress of our country has always been in enlarging that concept of inalienable rights. Often, by looking at other situations, it’s like holding a mirror up to ourselves: how are we doing? I think I use a lot of that in my arguments. We say we believe these things, and we say that we stand for these things, but in this instance we don’t? Why not? You explain to me why we shouldn’t. It’s like in the cocoa fields. We are the biggest importer of cocoa, or chocolate, from Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana; it’s like 80 or 90 percent. And yet we don’t allow child labor in our country. We have some laws that prohibit the importation of goods to this country made by child labor, so why is this accepted? I’ve used that line of reasoning: if you’re opposed to this, you tell me why this should be different. A lot of times you get this: “Well, it’s just their lifestyle.” I’ll tell you what, let’s take a poll and we’ll see what people feel like over there. How do these kids feel? Would they rather be in school, or would they rather be out in the cocoa fields with a machete hacking their fingers off? Come on, that’s a no-brainer. Plus, as I said one time on a floor speech, if we’re consuming all this chocolate, especially around Easter, how many families in America know that the little chocolate bunnies they buy for their Easter baskets came here because kids the same age as your kids are not going to school and are in the cocoa fields? They’re denied an education and suffer lifetime injuries—everything from illnesses to getting their fingers whacked off. You have to think about that when you’re buying that chocolate for your own kids.
So I do use an ethical approach, but I also use threats. The Harkin-Engel Protocol came about because there was a threat to have a national boycott on chocolate. When I gave my speech on the Senate floor, I said you don’t have to have chocolate, you can buy jelly beans or some other kind of candy. Then, the chocolate manufacturers and importers were drastically afraid that we were going to have a boycott. The reason they were afraid, and this is going way back to the early ‘80s, was because I was the honorary national chair of a breastfeeding coalition. It was a coalition of churches, civic groups, and others that were upset with the way Nestlé was marketing formula, rather than encouraging mothers to use breastmilk, which as we know is the best for a baby. I was a part of the leadership of what was called the Nestlé boycott. That went on for a couple years or so, and Nestlé got stung really badly on that, and they made changes on how they were marketing. Twenty years later, “Oh my God, Harkin is back again.” I’m the scourge of Nestlé, and they’re a big chocolate company. They got scared: here comes another boycott. So, they wanted to sit down at a table, and we did. It wasn’t just Nestlé; it was Nestlé, Mars, Hershey, ADM, and a number of different entities there. We hammered out this Harkin-Engel Protocol, which they signed off on and the government signed off on, and we modified it a few years later. You asked about a line of reasoning and I guess it’s everything from ethical to threats of boycotts—whatever works.
Gate: Human rights efforts are sometimes viewed as slow-moving and expensive by voters, and politicians may be hesitant to engage in these types of policies out of concerns over re-election. But you have been re-elected many times. What would you say to brand-new members of Congress to encourage them to continue these human rights efforts?
Harkin: The effort and development of expanding human rights and lifting up fellow humans is a never-ending process. There are always going to be challenges to this; there are entrenched interests. Some of these things take a long time, they just do. You can see some changes, but then you see some more that needs to be done. We’ve done pretty well in this country with the ADA, for example, on mobility and accessibility. Well, what we haven’t done as well on is intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses in our society. There are always new horizons and new challenges, but you can’t give up on this. I once made a statement apropos of this. People always talk about wanting peace and not war, so I thought about peace and war for a long time. I thought, most people have it wrong in their heads: they think that peace is the absence of war. But, see, peace is not the absence of war. Just as war is a process, by which we kill, maim, and degrade our fellow humans, peace is also a process. It’s a lifelong process—a generational process—by which we lift up our fellow humans, and make them whole in body and spirit. We have to make sure they’re able to live life not just based on material assets but based upon social and philosophical assets too. Once you think about it that way, as a process, peace is not something that you have, or that is static, just like human rights and the development of human rights. The respect for humans is never static, it’s always going to be evolving and developing in new forms and fashions. We make progress and then some other avenue opens up to work on. That’s why we just keep at it.
Gate: As a former senator from Iowa, you understand that the USDA claims that 51 percent of US land is used for some form of agriculture. When discussing the provisions of the ADA, how did its impact on rural regions, and the problem of how to implement it in all environments, make its way into the conversation?
Harkin: It was a factor in a lot of different discussions on how small towns, communities, and businesses would comply. How are they going to do this? Is it going to be an undue burden? We heard a lot about that. In fact, I had a person who ran against me for the Senate, after the ADA passed, and he voted against it. He was going on about the impact on rural areas and small towns, but obviously he didn’t win. Again, you have to be reasonable and understand that how this plays out in a small town is different than a large city. We fashioned the ADA that way. For example, we used the phrase, “reasonable accommodations,” for businesses. And then in our reporting, we outlined what we meant by that. What may be reasonable for General Motors is not reasonable for the mom and pop grocery store down the street. This all has to be taken into account. Of course, we did put in the tax law a provision that provides for a tax credit for small businesses—a 50 percent tax credit up to five thousand dollars. There was a lot of concern about farms, which still is not very good because farm kids are still exempt from a lot of rules, like coverage of labor and environmental laws.
Gate: Job accessibility is considerably less in rural areas, especially for people with disabilities.
Harkin: Very much so, but on the other hand, sometimes in small towns you find people are very accommodating because they know somebody with a disability: it’s personal. I love to tell the story about Emilea Hillman in Independence, Iowa. Independence is a town of maybe five or six thousand people. I’ve always liked that its name is “Independence.” Emilea is a young woman with an intellectual disability who found herself in one of those dead-end sub-minimum wage jobs. She told her parents that she didn’t like it, and when her mother asked her what she would like to do instead, she said she wanted to run a coffee shop. So they sent her to a barista school in Minneapolis, brought her back, went to the bank and borrowed money. There was an empty storefront on Main Street and they bought these fancy machines to make lattes and cappuccinos. That was about four or five years ago. Emilea now employs four people: three of them have disabilities and one doesn’t. She said once, “You know, I can’t figure numbers, so I had to hire someone to do my books.” She’s very honest. She knows she can’t understand all that stuff, but what she’s really good at is remembering who people are. So when Joe comes in, she knows it’s Joe. Everybody likes Emilea. Here’s someone with an intellectual disability running a coffee shop, and hiring other people, and it has become a mainstay of Independence. People love going there. And she’s had every presidential candidate coming through Iowa stopping in her coffee shop; they all stop at Emilea’s. Sometimes in rural areas and small towns, you can find things like that happening.
Gate: Any final thoughts that you would like to share?
Harkin: You can’t give up on these things—on human rights, accessibility, or anything else. There’s always something more to do. Somebody else has been marginalized. A new realm of human rights is incarceration in America. I hate to quote Donald Trump, but it’s huge! It’s awful what’s happening to people in our society being thrown in jail. That’s a whole new area in human rights. Even I had never thought about that until lately; it just hits you all of the sudden. And when they get out, they can’t vote or get a job. Their lives are ruined. It’s just awful. That’s what I’m saying; there’s always something out there left to be done.
Danielle Schmidt is a fourth-year Public Policy and Philosophy double major and Human Rights minor. Danielle has interned for a non-profit employment center on the South Side and a bipartisan advocacy organization for immigration reform; she served as a Field Director for an Illinois State Representative as well. On campus, she volunteers for New Americans and enjoys exploring the city with her cattle dog.