Harkin, other lawmakers receive substantial support from UI


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Legislation and policy may be presented in Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, but Iowa’s lawmakers are increasingly consulting people near a different dome: the Old Capitol and University of Iowa professors.

“We have [UI professors] down here all the time — everybody from experts in early child development to education policy,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City. “We have so many experts in so many areas, and that expertise is invaluable when putting together public policy.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is one lawmaker who has consistently worked with professors at the UI as well as elsewhere for years.

His decision to retire instead of seeking re-election in 2014 was announced over the weekend.

“Sen. Harkin has been in the most influential position since Sen. [Ted] Kennedy died,” said James Merchant, a UI professor of occupational and environmental health. “I don’t think the public-health community has had a more ardent advocate than Sen. Harkin.”

Sue Curry, the dean of the Public Health College, said Harkin values the evidence he has received from the college, and he worked to secure federal funding for the school’s new building. Curry has provided feedback on legislation in the past, including a draft of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“[Harkin] has always been open to new information and ideas; he values the type of evidence that Colleges of Public Health can provide to inform health policy,” Curry wrote in an email.

Harkin thanked the public-health faculty during a speech at the Public Health Building on April 20, 2012.

“There’s no question that experts at this college have had a profound national impact in the last decade,” he said. “When I’ve been drafting major national legislation, I’ve turned to the faculty here at the College of Public Health … for expert guidance.”

Harkin spokeswoman Kate Frischmann said the senator continues to work with Iowa faculty members on a number of issues, including mental health, and he has sought the assistance of professors in the Hygienic Lab and College of Nursing.

A UI political expert said Harkin’s relationship with the UI isn’t very surprising.

“It’s not entirely surprising, because he is, of course, is big on education,” said Tim Hagle, a UI associate professor of political science. “As he’s preparing for legislative activity, he might have reached out to those people who might be of like mind.”

The Public Policy Center, an academic research center at the UI, has also worked with Harkin as well as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and former Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa. The center has specifically worked with Iowa’s two senators on addressing the gas tax, given increasingly efficient vehicles.

Another local representative has consulted with both the center and UI professors while writing legislation and finding out more about policy items.

“There are a lot of knowledgeable experts on campus who are more than willing to make themselves available to solve problems in Iowa from cancer control to obesity reduction to clean water, climate change, aging, and long-term care,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

Merchant believes Harkin has been a “tremendous champion” for public health, and he will be hard to replace.

“He has very big shoes to fill, and if anyone has in our view ‘earned retirement,’ it’s Tom Harkin,” he said.

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