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Senator Harkin Retires, Challenges Congress to Do More

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After nearly four decades in Congress, Tom Harkin said goodbye to his colleagues in Washington DC earlier this month.  Senator Harkin decided earlier this year not to run for re-election, a move that shocked and saddened many Iowans. 

Sen. Harkin is well-known throughout the world as a champion for the rights of people with disabilities and as the author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted in 1990 and required buildings and public transportation to be accessible, and called for accommodations for people with disabilities in the workplace. As the head of the US Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Sen. Harkin advocated for full federal funding for the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act), which pays for educating students in special education. 

During his retirement speech, Sen. Tom Harkin challenged his fellow Senators to take action on four important issues (what the Des Moines Register called his "four final wishes"):

  1. Close the growing inequality gap between the rich and the poor. Senator Harkin said this is hurting people and it will destroy our representative form of government because the people on the bottom don't think they can make a difference.   Fairer tax laws, higher minimum wages, more job training, strengthening social security, building on the Affordable Care Act, ensuring free early education for all children, and rebuilding our country's infrastructure were all cited as challenges the US Congress should take on.

  2. Prevent the destruction of planet Earth. Senator Harkin expressed urgency in the need to reverse or slow climate change, and suggested that it is time to look at energy alternatives that do not rely on fossil fuels and energy from non-renewable sources. "The warning signs are flashing in neon bright red. Stop what you're doing with fossil fuels. We must switch massively and quickly to renewable energy," Harkin said.

  3. Reverse the underemployment of people with disabilities.  Senator Harkin said that two out of every three  American workers who are both able to work and want to work can't find a job. He underscored the importance of employment to people with disabilities, and said they often become a business's hardest working and most reliable employees. He pointed to the Walgreens pharmacy chain, which wants people with disabilities to make up 10% of its workforce.   "I dwell on this," he said, "perhaps because I feel I haven't done enough on this issue."

  4. Pass the United Nations treaty for people with disabilities.  Senator Harkin said his biggest regret is that Congress has yet to approve this treaty, which bans discrimination against people with disabilities throughout the world. Harkin said it's modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, it has been approved by 150 nations, and it is supported by every living former US President and every Republican U.S. Senate leader, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, various veterans groups and of course groups representing people with disabilities (learn more here).

During floor debate in 1990, Senator Harkin once gave an entire speech in American Sign Language, a language he knew well from growing up with his brother Frank (who had a hearing impairment).  So fittingly, Senator Harkin closed his retirement speech with "one of the most beautiful signs."

"Put your fingers together and put your hands together," Harkin said, 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.  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."

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  • You can read Senator Tom Harkin's retirement speech here.
  • You can watch Senator Tom Harkin's retirement speech here.