‘Something has to give’: In his farewell address, Utah’s Orrin Hatch says the Senate is in crisis

Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch, in his final address to the Senate as he prepares to leave office, said the chamber is in “crisis” and called for more civility in politics and respect for opposing views.

“On both the left and the right, the bar of decency has been set so low that jumping over it is no longer the objective,” Hatch said. “Limbo is the new name of the game. How low can you go? The answer, it seems, is always lower. All the evidence points to an unsettling truth: The Senate, as an institution, is in crisis, or at least may be in crisis.”

The Utah Republican, who is retiring at the end of the year after serving 42 years, gave his prescription for what ails the Senate as finding common ground and working together, not against one another. He said the Senate’s problems trickle down to the national discourse, and Congress should be the example instead of feeding the divisiveness.

“If we are divided, then the nation is divided,” Hatch said. “If we abandon civility, then our constituents will follow. And so, to mend the nation, we must first mend the Senate. We must restore the culture of comity, compromise and mutual respect that used to exist here and still does in some respects. Both in our personal and public conduct, we must be the very change we want to see in the country. We must not be enemies but friends.”

Hatch beckoned not only the Senate but also the country to stop living in isolation, free from opposing views, and encouraged people to expand their friendships to those who may have a contrary opinion. The senator cited President Abraham Lincoln’s warning that a house divided cannot stand.

“Today our house is as divided as at any time since the Civil War,” Hatch declared. “Each year red and blue America drift further apart. As progressives move to the coasts and conservatives retreat to the inner lands, to the center of the country, we’re finding a lot of difficulties have arisen, and they’re not easy to solve. We increasingly sort ourselves by geography. We also sort ourselves by ideology, with media diets catered to quiet our dissonance. It is a sad consequence of the information age that Americans can now live in the same city but inhabit completely different worlds. Something has to give. The status quo cannot hold.”

It wasn't the first time the senator has called for more restraint in political speech.

In a Time magazine piece in 2017, shortly after a gunman shot and wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., Hatch said it was time to tone down the rhetoric.

“Our words have consequences, and in an age of retweets, viral videos and shareable content, those words often echo well beyond their intended audience and context,” Hatch wrote. “It’s incumbent on all of us, then — from the president to Congress on down — to be responsible for our speech.”

He acknowledged that he’d fallen down the rabbit hole of fiery rhetoric himself.

“I will be the first to admit to saying things over the course of my public service that I later came to regret. In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to indulge in irresponsible rhetoric,” Hatch said. “But we must avoid this temptation.”

The senator has been known to sprinkle some angry words into speeches.

“I get a big kick out of them using the word ‘progressive,’” Hatch told the Federalist Society in 2016, referring to Democrats. “My gosh, they’re just straight old dumbass liberals anyway.”

Hatch apologized earlier this year after calling the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” the “stupidest, dumbass bill that I’ve ever seen” and those who support it “one of the stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met.” He later called it a “poorly worded joke.”

During the politically charged hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Hatch snapped at protesters for their “insolence” and told one woman to “grow up” when she urged Hatch to oppose him.

As Hatch spoke from his desk on the aisle of the Senate chamber, the normally empty chamber began to fill with fellow senators who came to offer their best wishes. A line of Hatch aides sat off to the side.

Hatch’s Utah colleague in the Senate, Republican Mike Lee, who was once a page sponsored by Hatch, was one of the first lined up to speak.

“For those of us from Utah, Orrin Hatch is more than just a prominent name in the news,” Lee said. “He's a towering political figure not only of his generation but also of the generations that have come along in his wake and that will follow. Many Utahns can't remember a time before Orrin Hatch was serving, leading, and speaking out for us in Washington.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted that Hatch, the longest-serving Republican in the chamber’s history, has passed more legislation than any other senator, a nod to his ability to work with others. And she lauded his call for civility and respect.

“They are why he is such an admired statesman here in Washington, throughout our nation and around the world,” Collins said. “And they are why he is one of the most effective legislators of modern times. As many of my colleagues have already commented, Senator Hatch’s record of having passed more legislation than any senator alive today is one that demonstrates his commitment to bridging the partisan divide to achieve and advance the common good and to improve the lives of Americans.”

Republican Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, who will replace Hatch on Jan. 3, tweeted about Hatch’s speech and his urge for respect, pluralism, dignity, comity and unity.

“His record of legislative accomplishment is unparalleled," Romney said, “his call for greatness is characteristic of this man of vision.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also praised Hatch’s long service and his contribution to the Senate and the nation.

“The most impressive thing about Orrin Hatch is not the historic length of his tenure here, but how completely filled with accomplishments that time has been,” McConnell said.

“He’s been every bit the principled fighter, as advertised. He’s led the charge often and hasn’t flinched from the big battles,” McConnell added. “But at the very same time, there was Orrin, constantly working quietly behind the scenes and across the aisle to tick off victories for vulnerable Americans who could easily have been left behind.”