Five-term Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which this summer approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the LGBT workplace discrimination ban that passed the Senate Thursday afternoon. In an interview following the vote, Harkin told Salon that ENDA’s Senate passage should spur President Obama to take executive action against discrimination, said Speaker Boehner is making “about the phoniest arguments I have ever heard” to defend his opposition, and questioned “the underlying basis” of any religion that encourages discrimination.
He also touted his proposal to increase Social Security benefits as a better alternative to the president’s favored “chained CPI” cut, which he compared to telling seniors, “Don’t live so long.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.
Well, I hope the vote today will encourage and pressure John Boehner, Speaker Boehner, to bring the bill up on the House floor…I think we got ten Republicans here, that is almost 25 per cent of the caucus. I think they have the same kind of support among Republicans in the House. So if Boehner were to bring this up in the House, it would pass…If he doesn’t bring it up, of course then it dies – but then it’s very clear to the country who killed ENDA, and it will be the Republican House of Representatives.
Those are about the phoniest arguments I have ever heard. I mean, you know, that’s an old argument that was used against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was used against the Americans with Disabilities Act which I was a sponsor [of] in 1990…Did some people bring suits under them? Sure, but that’s the whole idea of a civil rights bill, and that is to give people recourse to the courts to redress their wrongs.
Think about it this way. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if you were an African-American, and you went down to get a job for which you were qualified, [and] your respective employer said “get out of here I don’t hire black people,” and you went down to the courthouse, the courthouse door was locked. There’s nothing you could do about it…
Disability, same thing: Up until 1990, if you were a person with disability, and you were qualified for a job, and employer says, “No, get out of here, I don’t hire cripples,” you went and took your wheelchair down to the courthouse, you’d find the courthouse door was locked. You had absolutely no recourse. 1990, guess what? Courthouse doors are open.
That’s the same way again with people in our society who are lesbian gay bisexual or transgender…employer finds out you’re gay and says “get out of here, I don’t keep gay people around here, ‘queers’ around here,” like they say…Well, today you go down to the courthouse door, it’s closed. It’s locked. You have no recourse…
Frivolous lawsuits, I can tell you from my history of people with disabilities – in other words, people want to work. They don’t want to just go file lawsuits. People want to work. They want to be productive members of society. And that’s what this bill will do…
And the inclusion of transgender workers in the bill.…was that controversial within the caucus?
No. No, it wasn’t. And it wasn’t controversial in my committee…we had our hearings, and then we had a markup, and transgender was not an issue.
How many of the US Senators do you think know someone personally who’s transgender?
I haven’t the foggiest idea, Josh. I don’t know. I don’t know. I bet if they don’t know someone personally, they know someone who does…
In your time in the Senate, how much have you seen the attitudes of senators about LGBT people change?
Oh tremendously. Tremendously it’s changed. In fact, I said on the floor…we’re actually behind the American people on this issue. 80 per cent of the American people, in poll after poll, already believe that it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of LGBT…
The religious exception in the law – the breadth of that exception has been criticized by some groups including the ACLU. Do you believe that the exception as it exists is good policy?
…Well, I mean I have a philosophical problem with it. But I recognize that this exemption basically tracks the exemptions that we have in other civil rights legislation…So in that regard, we’re not expanding it any – we’re basically keeping it within the bounds of saying that you have to be a religiously-based entity or have some close connection there-to. Basically, I always say it this way: if your basic reason for being is for commercial activity, to make a profit, then you are covered under ENDA. If your basic reason and [what you] do mostly is religious in nature, then you’re not covered. I think that’s an exception that, given the context of times, we are as a society- I think it’s probably a reasonable exception.
When you say you “have a philosophical problem with it,” what do you mean?
Well I guess what I’ve said before is that people say they want a religious exemption so they can discriminate against people because they are lesbian gay bisexual or transgender. I have often asked the question: What kind of a religion is it that teaches that you can be a bigot? That’s my philosophical problem with it. To me, it seems to me that the basis of most religions are to love your neighbor as yourself. To break down bigotry. A religion that says that it’s alright to discriminate against people because of their race, or national origin, that’s the case, then I have a real question about the underlying basis of that religion. That’s just my philosophical problem.
Do you believe that if this law passes, that that religious exemption could change in the future?
Anything could change…I don’t think there would be enough support on the conservative side to enlarge it, probably not enough support on the liberal side to narrow it. It’s probably right about – as I said, the exemption really does track what we already have in civil rights law. It seems to have worked so far, so I think we’ll probably stay pretty close to that.
When you look at the progress that’s been made by advocates for LGBT equality, and you compare it to the defensive fights that progressives are fighting on some other issues, why do you think there’s been such a shift on these issues in the past several years?
Well, first of all I think the community – if I can say – of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons has formed a pretty strong force in our society. More and more people are – you used to say coming out, I don’t know if they even say that any more. More and more people are identifying, I’ll say that. It’s just not a big deal anymore, and I think in that regard that has strengthened their position. More and more and more friends, our neighbors and families, are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered…I think what it’s lent itself to is a new force in America – not just political force, but a force for economic force…
Should the president now sign an executive order to ban federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers?
Why do you think that hasn’t happened?
Don’t know. Maybe this will help the president be able to sign it – the passage of this, 64 votes, indicates to the president he has nothing to fear. Go ahead and sign it. We’ve got hundreds of businesses supporting ENDA, church groups, everyone, so it’s got broad public support. So I would think this might give the president a little bit more underpinnings to go ahead and do such a executive order.
On Social Security: you’ve introduced legislation to increase Social Security benefits…Why is this the time to increase Social Security?
Because our retirement system is shot all full of holes, and we need to shore up Social Security, make it more of a retirement system…
We need a new narrative out there. Everyone is saying we need to save Social Security by cutting it. That’s not true. There are little things you can do to save it and actually enhance it, make it better, and give Social Security retirees more income. That’s why I’ve introduced it.
Given how popular Social Security is with the public, why do you think it is such a target, with politicians and outside groups and media figures all calling for cuts to it?
You know…it just sort of became… popular thinking, accepted argument, that something is wrong with Social Security: “It’s going broke,” and you know, “too few people take it in and too many people take it out,” and “we’ve got to cut back on the entitlements.” “Entitlements.” I mean, Republicans have been on this for years and years and years…
And do you believe it is possible that this bill will make it through the Senate and through the House?
Well honestly, probably not right now. Keep in mind what I’m trying to do: I’m trying to set up an opposite…I wanted to put something else out there, that people might say “What? Harkin’s talking about increasing Social Security? How can that possibly be? It’s already going broke,” and all of that kind of stuff. Well, I hope I get people thinking about it…Just earlier this week there were some House Republicans that said they were open to removing the wage cap…Step in the right direction.
And are you committed to oppose any kind of budget deal that includes chained CPI as an aspect?
Absolutely – I will oppose chained CPI. Because that’s just another way of cutting Social Security…The older you are, and the poorer you are, the harder you’re hit by Chained CPI. It’s just regressive in that regard…Now what the heck kind of sense does that make?
…Remember they brought this whole thing about “death panels” and stuff on the elderly. And here, they’re calling, and a lot of people are trying to do chained CPI. It’s a penalty – the longer you live, it’s a penalty on you. It’s sort of like saying, “Don’t live so long.” It’s all wrong…It’s not needed…What we need is a CPI-e, as I proposed, which is a Consumer Price Index based on what elderly people spend their money on, not based on what 20 year-olds spend their money.
So you’re saying not just that you oppose it, but that you would oppose any kind of deal if it included chained CPI?
Well, never say never. I just – I can’t see any scenario right now where I would support chained CPI. If there’s some package that might be good out there that would raise the wage cap, change the bend points, do a couple of other things, I’d have to see what that looks like.
And if the president came to the Democratic caucus with some kind of deal that included chained CPI, what kind of reception do you think he would get from Democrats in the Senate?
Oh, there are obviously a few Democrats who have already publicly supported chained CPI, although I think as time has gone on, as they have learned more and more about what chained CPI does, they have become less and less vocal in their support for it. If the president came with this proposal for chained CPI, I don’t think he’d find very much support in the Democratic caucus. Very minor – maybe three or four or five, I don’t know. Very few. I have twenty-one Senate Democrats already on my bill that’s against the chained CPI.
You’ve had the president talking about the decline in growth in government as compared to the Eisenhower administration, you have the sequester cuts continuing to be in place – in the larger picture, are the Republicans winning on the size of government?
Well, I don’t know. I put myself in the category of one who’s never been just in favor of bigger government for bigger government’s sake. I’m in favor of government meeting certain essential obligations in our society. In cases that would be increasing government, in other areas it might be decreasing government. So the way I look at it is, I look upon it as what’s happening with our system now is that the middle class is losing. The middle class is losing, losing, and that’s what’s got to be stopped.
And what do you believe is possible to accomplish between now and the end of this Congress, while you still have Speaker Boehner’s House to deal with?
Well, what’s possible to accomplish depends on Speaker Boehner, and I cant read his mind …It used to be said that the Senate was the place that House bills went to die. Well now, it’s the House that’s killing all of these bills.
So what’s the prospects during this Congress? …I don’t know. But again, a lot of times in the face of these odds, you’ve got to come out, stake out your position, marshal your data and your facts, your arguments, and just stay at it. Because it takes quite a while to get the American people to understand what you’re talking about…It does take time.