Thomas Richard "Tom" Harkin (born November 19, 1939) is an American politician who served as a United States Senator from Iowa from 1985 to 2015. A member of the Democratic Party, he previously served in the United States House of Representatives from 1975 to 1985.

Born in Cumming, Iowa, Harkin graduated from Iowa State University and The Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law. He served in the United States Navy as an active-duty jet pilot (1962–67). After serving as a Congressional aide for several years, he made two runs for the U.S. House of Representatives, losing in 1972 but winning in 1974. He went on to serve five terms in the House.

Harkin won a race for U.S. Senate in 1984 by a wide margin. He was an early frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination in 1992, but he dropped out in support of eventual winner Bill Clinton. He served five senate terms and at the end of his time in the senate served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. When he left the senate in 2015 he was the most senior junior senator after serving for 30 years and the sixth most senior senator over all.

On January 26, 2013, he announced his intention to retire from the Senate after completing his fifth term in 2015.

Early life, education, and early political career

Harkin was born in Cumming, Iowa. His father, Patrick Francis Harkin, an Irish American, was a coal miner, and his mother, Franciska Frances Valentine (née Berčič), was a Slovene immigrant who died when he was ten. Tom has 3 half-siblings on his mother's side from her first marriage in Iowa to fellow Slovenian Valentine Brelih. Frances was born in Suha, Slovenia to Jakob and Marija (born Jugovec). He still maintains his childhood house, where he and his five siblings were raised without hot running water or a furnace. He attended Dowling Catholic High School which is currently located in West Des Moines, Iowa. Harkin attended Iowa State University on a Navy R.O.T.C. scholarship and became a member of Delta Sigma Phi fraternity. He graduated with a degree in government and economics in 1962, and served in the United States Navy as an active-duty jet pilot from 1962 to 1967. Harkin was stationed at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan, where he ferried aircraft to and from the airbase that had been damaged in the Vietnam War and in operational and training accidents. He was also stationed for a time at Guantanamo Bay, where he flew missions in support of U-2 planes reconnoitering Cuba. After leaving active duty in 1967, he spent three years in the Ready Reserves, and transitioned into the Naval Reserves in 1970. He retired in 1989 with the rank of commander.

In 1969, Harkin moved to Washington, D.C., and began work as an aide to Democratic U.S. Congressman Neal Smith. During his work for Smith, he accompanied a congressional delegation that went to South Vietnam in 1970. Harkin published photographs he took during the trip and a detailed account of the "tiger cages" at Con Son Island prison in Life Magazine on July 17, 1970. The account exposed shocking, inhumane conditions and treatment to which prisoners were subjected. He received his Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from The Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law in 1972.

U.S. House of Representatives

In 1972, the same year that he graduated from law school, Harkin returned to Iowa and immediately ran against an incumbent Republican Congressman, William J. Scherle. Scherle represented the southwestern portion of Iowa, which (with one brief exception) had not elected a Democrat to Congress since the end of the Great Depression. While winning a higher percentage of votes than any of Scherle's previous opponents, Harkin nevertheless lost the race.

After his 1972 defeat, Harkin practiced law in Ames before seeking a rematch against Scherle in 1974. In what was generally a bad year for Republicans due to the Watergate scandal, Harkin defeated Scherle by only 3,500 votes. He was re-elected four more times from Iowa's 5th congressional district without serious difficulty.

U.S. Senate


In 1984, Harkin won the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate and defeated freshman Republican Roger Jepsen by a surprisingly wide 11.8-point margin. He was re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008.


Harkin has served in the Senate longer than any Democrat in Iowa's history. In 2009, he passed Neal Smith as the longest-serving Democrat in either chamber from Iowa. Notably, he spent his entire tenure as Iowa's junior Senator, due to his colleague Chuck Grassley having served in the chamber since 1979. He and Grassley had a fairly good relationship, despite their philosophical differences. Their seniority gave Iowa clout in national politics well beyond its modest population.

Along with California Senator Barbara Boxer, Harkin was one of only two Senate Democrats to come out in favor of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's resolution to censure President George W. Bush.

Harkin (in addition to U.S. Senators Dick Lugar, Tim Johnson, Byron Dorgan, Joe Biden and Barack Obama), introduced the BioFuels Security Act (S. 2817/109th) on March 16, 2006.

Harkin came out in favor of the Fairness Doctrine during an interview with Bill Press. (February 11, 2009)

Harkin has been influential in increasing research funding for alternative medicine. He was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Office of Alternative Medicine in 1992, which later became the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. His efforts and the Center's results, however, have been criticized.

On July 16, 2013, Harkin introduced the Cooperative and Small Employer Charity Pension Flexibility Act (S. 1302; 113th Congress) into the Senate. The bill would make changes to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to alter the funding requirements of certain private pension plans that are maintained by more than one employer where the employers are either cooperatives or charities. The bill would make permanent an existing exemption from the Pension Protection Act of 2006 for a few small groups.

On November 19, 2013, Harkin introduced the Minimum Wage Fairness Act (S. 1737; 113th Congress). The bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) to increase the federal minimum wage for employees to $10.10 per hour over the course of a two-year period. The bill was strongly supported by President Barack Obama and many of the Democratic Senators, but strongly opposed by Republicans in the Senate and House.

Vietnam controversy

While running for his Senate seat in 1984, and again while running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, Harkin has faced criticism for claiming that he had flown combat missions over North Vietnam. In a 1979 round table discussion with other Congressional military veterans, Harkin said of his service as a navy pilot: "One year was in Vietnam. I was flying F-4s and F-8s on combat air patrols and photo-reconnaissance support missions". These comments were later published in a 1981 book by David Broder. After subsequent inquiries by Barry Goldwater and The Wall Street Journal, Harkin clarified that he had been stationed in Japan and sometimes flew recently repaired aircraft on test missions over Vietnam. His service flying F-4s and F-8s was later, while he was stationed at U.S. Naval Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Civil Air Patrol

Senator Harkin has dedicated 27 years of service to the Civil Air Patrol, the United States Air Force Auxiliary. He is currently the commander of the Congressional Squadron, a unique unit that gives active and retired members of Congress and congressional staff the opportunity to participate in CAP.

On 28 February 2011, Harkin introduced Senate Bill 418, which calls for recognition of Civil Air Patrol members who served during World War II. The bill would recognize WWII CAP "sub-chasers" with a single Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts in spotting several German U-boats and sinking two.

Today, Sen. Harkin is one of the more vocal supporters of the Civil Air Patrol. "CAP is getting into some interesting missions. The Deepwater Horizon disaster showed that volunteers could step up to support federal agencies and states at the same time. It was a good demonstration of CAP's ability to perform its mission during a national emergency."

Social policy

Harkin introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act into the Senate. Harkin delivered part of a speech in sign language so his deaf brother could understand.

Harkin has taken issue with the Supreme Court's handling of a number of cases related to ADA, concerned that the judgments severely limited the scope of the legislation's effectiveness:

"Together, these cases, as handled by the nation's highest court, have created a supreme absurdity: The more successful a person is at coping with a disability, the more likely it is for a court to find that he or she is no longer sufficiently disabled to be protected by the ADA. If that is the ruling, then these individuals may find that their requests for reasonable accommodations at work can be denied. Or that they can be fired—without recourse."

In order to address these issues Harkin proposed the ADA Amendments Act, which in his words "will restore the proper balance and application of the ADA by clarifying and broadening the definition of disability, while increasing eligibility for ADA protections."

Harkin has also been a vocal critic of what he describes as the biased nature of the Medicaid program:

"The current Medicaid system is unacceptably biased in favor of institutional care. Two-thirds of Medicaid long-term care dollars are spent on institutional services, with only one-third going to community-based care. It's time to rebalance the system."

During his political career, Harkin has generally supported the Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which decided that a right to privacy under the due process clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution extends to a woman's decision to have an abortion. He has opposed most efforts to place legal restrictions on Roe v. Wade, including voting against a ban on late term abortion, while supporting contraception and education to reduce teen pregnancy. As of 2003, Harkin received a 100 percent rating from NARAL, the pro-choice advocacy organization. He was very critical of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which places limits on taxpayer-funded abortions in the context of the November 2009 Affordable Health Care for America Act.

Harkin has come out in favor of embryonic stem cell research. In July 2006, Harkin made a speech from the Senate floor in response to George W. Bush's veto of the embryonic stem cell research federal funding bill.

In May 2009, Harkin announced he opposed any effort to overturn an Iowa Supreme Court decision in April 2009 that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. "We all grow as we get older; we learn things, we become more sensitive to people and people's lives," said Harkin. "The more I've looked at that, I've grown to think differently about how we should live. I guess I've got to the point of live and let live."

On December 18, 2010, Harkin voted in favor of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010.

Harkin has also been active in combating the worst forms of child labor. The Trade Development Act of 2000 "contains important child labor protections authored by Senator Harkin." After reports of child trafficking and child slavery associated with cocoa plantations in West Africa surfaced in the media, Harkin, along with U.S. Representative Eliot Engel and with the support of U.S. Senator Herbert Kohl, sponsored a voluntary agreement by major players in the cocoa and chocolate industry signed in 2001 and often referred to as the Harkin-Engel Protocol. The purpose of this "Protocol for the growing and processing of cocoa beans and their derivative products" was to bring practices in West Africa into line with Convention 182 of the International Labor Organization concerning the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor. (Some difficulties in meeting the deadlines set in this Protocol have been encountered.) Harkin has worked in other ways to combat the import of child labor-made products.

Harkin believes America faces a retirement crisis, saying "Pensions have gone by the wayside. Savings are down as people are just scraping by, so the only thing left is Social Security."

Harkin supported President Barack Obama's health reform legislation; he voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in December 2009, and he voted for the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. PolitiFact rated Harkin's 2009 claim regarding the number of Americans losing health insurance coverage "false."

However, in 2014 Harkin expressed some second thoughts. He criticized health reform as being too complex and convoluted. “All the prevention stuff is good but it’s just really complicated. It doesn’t have to be that complicated,” he said of the Affordable Care Act. He also believes the new legislation rewards the insurance industry. He said important reforms such as preventing insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and keeping young adults on their parents’ health insurance plans until age 26 were laudable, but he now believes that Democrats should not have settled for a solution he believes is inferior to government-provided health insurance. In retrospect he believes the Democratic-controlled Senate and House should have enacted a single-payer healthcare system or a public option to give the uninsured access to government-run health plans that compete with private insurance companies.

His comments about Cuban healthcare have been criticized as misrepresenting the availability of quality care.


Harkin has been a staunch supporter of Israel as a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which appropriates about $2 billion annually for military financing for Israel. As of 2010 he was the third-largest career recipient of pro-Israel Political Action Committee contributions in the Senate.


In May 2006 Harkin voted in favor of Senate Bill 2611, also known as the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Among the bill's many provisions, it would increase the number of H1B visas, increase security along the southern United States border with Mexico, allow long-time illegal immigrants to gain citizenship with some restrictions, and increase the number of guest workers over and above those already present in the U.S. through a new "blue card" visa program. The bill ultimately failed to pass.

Committee assignments

1992 presidential election

Primary campaign

Harkin ran for President in 1992 as a populist with labor union support. He criticized George H. W. Bush for being out of touch with working-class Americans. Harkin was an early favorite in a small field of five candidates. Harkin won the Iowa caucus and those in Idaho and Minnesota (with help from Senator Paul Wellstone), but he ran poorly in New Hampshire and other primaries and ultimately lost the Democratic Party nomination to Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Harkin was the first Democratic primary contender to drop out and throw his support behind Clinton — a favor that led to a close relationship throughout the Clinton presidency.


Considered as running mate

Coming from the pivotal and swing Midwestern state of Iowa, Harkin has figured in the running mate searches multiple times since his 1992 race. Clinton considered Harkin in 1992 because of his ties to labor and strong support after he left the presidential race. In 2000, Harkin was considered a running mate by then-Vice President Al Gore. However, Harkin's age was one reason he was not considered as strongly this time. In 2004, as Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) looked at Harkin as a running mate among other Senate colleagues, though Harkin promoted his protege, then-Governor Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa).

Electoral history

Personal life

Senator Harkin married Minnesota native Ruth Raduenz in 1968 and has two daughters: Amy, born in 1976, and Jenny, born in 1981. Ruth Harkin is an attorney and was one of the first women in the United States to be elected as a prosecutor when, in 1972, she was elected to the office of county attorney of Story County, Iowa. She served as a deputy counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before joining the Washington law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, in 1983. In 1993, President Bill Clinton named her chairman and chief executive officer of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Ruth Harkin left the government and became United Technologies' senior vice president for international affairs and government relations in April 1997, leading their Washington DC office. In 2002, Mrs. Harkin became a director of ConocoPhillips. Mrs. Harkin currently sits on the Iowa Board of Regents, the body responsible for overseeing the state's public universities.

Senator Harkin made a brief cameo appearance as himself in the political satire Dave (1993), as did his fellow senators Christopher Dodd, Howard Metzenbaum, Paul Simon and Alan K. Simpson.

The Harkins' daughter Amy appeared on the NBC daytime reality series Starting Over from 2003 to 2004. Although Tom Harkin never appeared on the show, his voice was heard when his daughter spoke to him on the phone. She is currently a graduate student at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

In 2015 New York City held its first Disability Pride Parade, and Tom Harkin was its grand marshal. He was also the grand marshal for the Chicago Disability Pride Parade that same year.

Published works

  • Harkin, Tom and Thomas, C. E. Five Minutes to Midnight: Why the Nuclear Threat Is Growing Faster Than Ever, Carol Publishing Corporation, 1990. ISBN 1-55972-042-5