WASHINGTON — After decades of sending Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin to represent them in the U.S. Senate, Iowans are seeing their power team reach a milestone in public service.
A study this month by the University of Minnesota finds the two senators from opposing parties have racked up more side-by-side experience than any other state’s current senatorial delegation — by far. Harkin and Grassley have served together for 21,925 days, or just over 60 years, far ahead of second-place Michigan, whose senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow have served a combined total of 16,812 days, or about 46 years.
When Congress’s entire history is included, Harkin and Grassley place fifth on the all-time list, behind past Senate delegations from South Carolina (1), Mississippi (2), Arkansas (3) and Maine (4).
Just how quickly the numbers can change is evident by looking at Hawaii, where Sen. Daniel Inouye passed away in December, and Sen. Daniel Akaka retired this month. The two Democrats had nearly 23 years of simultaneous experience, but their replacements now have just a handful of days — tumbling the Aloha State from No. 1 all the way to No. 50 among current delegations within just a few weeks.
Both Grassley and Harkin say the real benefit of their tenure is their ability to influence the agenda in a town where seniority is sacrosanct and legislation is nearly impossible without relationships. Recent legislation with far-reaching effects on Iowa such as the federal farm bill, wind energy tax credits and dairy programs, for example, all have been heavily influenced by the two men.
“It’s simple. The more seniority you have, the more you can move up on committees, the more you get to be chairman and the more you can set the agenda,” Grassley told The Gazette. “Otherwise you can’t even influence things. It’s very hard when you’re a freshman to get money for your state. It’s a lot easier now.”
Harkin said he has used his seniority to push through a number of achievements, most recently including safety improvements for the Food and Drug Administration and an extension of low-interest student loans last year.
But beyond the simple novelty of the numbers, some observers note Iowans’ consistency at electing a Democrat and a Republican whose votes almost always cancel each other out in the Senate. According to a vote database maintained by the Washington Post, Grassley votes with the GOP 86 percent of the time, while Harkin sides with his fellow Democrats 94 percent of the time.
Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, pointed out Iowans have long preferred consistent, divided government — voting for a Democratic president only in recent years, regularly alternating between Democratic and Republican governors, electing two congressional Democrats and two Republicans, and even a state legislature that is currently split between the Democratic-controlled House and the GOP-controlled Senate.
“You could say Iowans are working at cross-purposes, but it’s also an indication that some people always vote for Harkin and some always vote for Grassley,” Hagle told The Gazette. “That means there’s a middle group of folks that are willing to split their votes, and they’re clearly the ones who decide things. That provides more diversity and a more robust discussion, because those folks don’t always vote the same way every time.”
Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, is familiar with the dynamic of states that consistently elect senators from opposing parties.
“They do cancel each other out, that’s all there is to it. Tom is liberal. Chuck is conservative. They are consistently elected, and that tells me the state is comfortable with that,” Hamilton told The Gazette.
“There’s no doubt that with seniority comes clout. Washington is a city of networks, and it’s easy for a senator of long standing to develop those and advance their interests. But you have to have confidence, because you can be there a long time and not have any clout. And there are negatives — you develop more adversaries over time.”
Pointing to the White House, Grassley said there is an advantage to having senators from opposing parties represent the same state.
“Our votes might cancel each other out, but when there’s a Democrat administration, then Iowa benefits from having Sen. Harkin, and when there’s a Republican administration, they benefit from my being in the Senate,” he said.
Harkin said he and Grassley have a history of working together despite their political differences
“In areas of common purpose for Iowa, such as securing flood recovery for Cedar Rapids, extending the wind production tax credit to support thousands of Iowa jobs, or supporting confirmation of a New Southern District Judge for Iowa — Stephanie Rose — Sen. Grassley and I have a proud history of working together for our state,” Harkin said.