Watchdogs fret loss of key Democrats

Congress is losing its most powerful crusaders for health and safety protections, prompting heightened fears from public safety groups over an incoming GOP majority bent on dialing back federal regulations.

Among a host of veteran Democrats retiring at year’s end are Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers A pandemic election should move America to address caregivers' struggles The Memo: Trump attacks on Harris risk backfiring MORE (D-Iowa), who championed for affordable health care; Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who fought for consumer product safety standards; and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who pushed for minimum wage increases.

Democratic colleagues and supporters say their departures will leave a void that won't be easy to fill.  

“It’s going to take a group effort, a team effort, to replace these leading lights,” said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen. “And it’s really a wonderful legacy, a tough one, but a necessary one for the champs that are left to take up.”

Elected to the Senate in 1975, Harkin is best known for helping author the Americans with Disabilities Act, passing laws that crack down on child labor and fighting for strong workplace and safety protections in memory of his father, a coal miner who died of black lung disease.

Harkin, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, relinquishes his gavel at a time when all-important seniority is in short supply in the upper chamber.

Come January, nearly half of all U.S. senators will be in their freshman terms.

“There are a lot of veterans that are no longer around, so the experience has diminished a little bit in the Senate, but there are still folks that really care about these issues.”

Groups are looking to remaining Senate veterans, like Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayHawley pens op-ed to defend decision to object to electoral votes amid pushback Demolition at the Labor Department, too Hawley, Cruz face rising anger, possible censure MORE (D-Wash.). A member of the Senate since 1993, Murray will serve as top Democrat on the HELP Committee next session.

“Every worker and family deserves to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing policies are in place to keep them healthy and safe,” she said in a statement to The Hill.

Murray said she hopes continue Harkin’s “legacy of building safer workplaces and healthier communities,” and pledged to push for an update to existing workplace protection laws.

In the house, replacements are harder to pinpoint. With so many retirements, the chamber is still getting organized, said Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s director of occupational safety and health.

No matter how the dust settles, it will be without a pair of California Democrats seen as the chamber’s top advocates for strong regulation.

Miller also made healthier and safer workplaces a major cause, while Waxman has helped lead the charge on consumer and environmental protections, waging battles against big tobacco and air polluters.

Taking over for him as top Democrat on the influential House Energy & Commerce Committee will be Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.).

“Of course Frank Pallone is different from Henry Waxman, but each one believes in the Democratic values of the Democratic Caucus,” said fellow committee member Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).

“And that is: climate change is real, every American deserves affordable health care, and you’ve got to have common sense regulations related to greenhouse gases,” he continued. “I think he’s going to be an effective leader.”

Though others are expected to step forward like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPorter loses seat on House panel overseeing financial sector OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters DeVos mulled unilateral student loan forgiveness as COVID-19 wracked economy: memo MORE (D-Mass.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures MORE (D-Ohio), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Seminario said none could replace Harkin, Waxman and Miller.

“It’s the history. It’s the experience. It’s the knowledge base of these individuals we’re losing,” she said.  

The public can expect to see fewer public protections in the near future as a result, she warned.  

John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouse conservatives plot to oust Liz Cheney Ex-Speaker Boehner after Capitol violence: 'The GOP must awaken' Boehner congratulates President-elect Joe Biden MORE and Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBoebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report Urgency mounts for new voting rights bill Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster MORE view regulations as a dirty word and they’re going to try to go after specific ones,” Seminario said. “Worker protections are going to be at the top of their list.”