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 HarkinStop asking parents to sacrifice Social Security benefits for paid family leave The FDA crackdown on dietary supplements is inadequate Wisconsin lawmaker refuses to cut hair until sign-language bill passes 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 MurrayHillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates 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 Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Warren spends big on staff in high-stakes 2020 gamble On The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost MORE (D-Mass.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Budowsky: 2020 Dems should debate on Fox Overnight Health Care: How 2020 Dems want to overhaul health care | Brooklyn parents sue over measles vaccination mandate | Measles outbreak nears record 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 BoehnerTrump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list Resurrecting deliberative bodies Trump's decision on health care law puts spotlight on Mulvaney MORE and Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Overnight Health Care: McConnell offering bill to raise tobacco-buying age to 21 | NC gov vetoes 'born alive' abortion bill | CMS backs off controversial abortion proposal HR 1 brings successful local, state reforms to the federal level and deserves passage 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.”