Meet the New Senate Education Appropriator

Its time for another installment of our ongoing series of profiles of new Capitol Hill Chairmen. Today, we move to United States Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). Since the Senate has changed hands more frequently than the House, Senator Harkin has some experience in the chair hes about to occupy. We'll get to that. But first, a bit about the good Senator.

Senator Harkin is in his 4th Senate term, after first being elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, alongside George Miller and the rest of the Watergate Babies. Hes been in the Senate since 1984, though, long enough to build real seniority on the Appropriations, Agriculture, and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committees.

Harkin has earned a reputation for being a liberal fighter. Hes committed great time and effort in defense of Social Security and other programs for the elderly (Iowas population is one of the oldest in the nation). Hes one of the fathers of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a leader on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). "Give 'em hell, Harkin" ran for President in 1992. Since then hes focused closer to home and used his Iowa residency and annual Steak Fry to play Democratic Presidential hopeful kingmaker.

While Harkin is an old-fashioned liberal, he respects the Senate as an institution and is very capable of working with the other side of the aisle. Proof is the way he's worked with Senator Specter (the current Chairman of the Subcommittee) over the last few years. Budgets have been very tight, and these two men have tended to work and vote together for education appropriations bills. There are staff who have worked for both men. Like our mothers taught us, Harkin and Specter respect each other, and the respect Specter paid Harkin as Ranking Member will be repaid by Harkin to Specter in the next Congress.

Ok, enough bio. Where's the money going to go? The Labor-H Appropriations Subcommittee Chair can sometimes be a nuts and bolts job, but Harkin has shown himself to be a man with big vision.

First, theres Harkin's commitment to full-funding for children in special education. Heres the deal: Back in the early 1970s, Congress passed the first version of what is now IDEA, the special education law that guarantees kids a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. At the time, Congress made a promise to bear 40% of the extra cost associated with special education. This being Washington, well, promises get broken. As of the mid-90s, the feds were meeting about 8% of the need. A bipartisan group of Senators made increasing that percentage a priority, and in recent years federal funding has climbed as high as 19% of the estimated cost (though that has diminished with budget cuts in recent years).

Working with Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Senator Harkin has been a leader in the fight for full-funding of IDEA. Harkin and Hagel repeatedly offered an amendment to make full-funding of IDEA mandatory. The Harkin-Hagel amendment even got approved by the Senate in 2001, though it was dropped in conference.

If IDEA, however, is ever fully funded, well, it would be of monumental significance to local schools. Currently, they fill the gap where federal funding falls short, meaning there is less local funding available for non-disabled kids -- meaning that kid is pitted against kid, parent against parent locally. It can get ugly. Watch for Harkin to continue to work toward full-funding of IDEA.

Second, theres the Moonshot. No, were not talking about Neil Armstrong. In the contentious budget debate of 2001, Tom Harkin proposed an amendment that would "Leave No Child Behind." His amendment proposed to divert $250 billion over 10 years from President Bush's tax cuts into education (ahh, the heady days of extensive surplus). The amendment passed the Senate and then was stripped in conference in favor of the full Bush tax cut. That decision had very significant consequences.

Finally, there's Harkin's view of Pell Grants. During his term as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 2001-2002, he increased the Pell Grant appropriation from $8.8 billion to $11.3 billion, the largest one year increase in the history of the program. Watch for Pell to grow significantly again under his coming Chairmanship.

Higher Ed Watch thinks IDEA and Pell will be big winners under Harkin's watch, but he'd like another Moonshot to do more elsewhere. The question for him will be: how big is the education pot from which to work? That'll be determined by the President's Budget and subsequent Congressional Budget Resolution. Watch for Harkin to get in the mix there again. Big time.

Author:

Justin King is Policy Director of the Family-Centered Social Policy program at New America. In this position, he works to develop and advance innovative public policies that expand economic opportunity by better supporting the financial needs and desires of striving Americans.