Washington • Nearly 42 years after Orrin Hatch first walked into the Senate chamber as a political neophyte, he will leave after serving longer than any other Republican senator in history, passing the most legislation of anyone currently living and attaining a post that put him third in line for the presidency.
It was a helluva run for a Pittsburgh-born boy with humble roots.
It’s also a tale of how times have changed in the nation’s capital and how Hatch has changed with them.
Most Americans could maybe name a handful of senators. Hatch is likely one of them.
He’s a household name from his decades of service and impact on the nation. A senator who shepherded through massive tax reforms, launched a social net program that helped tens of millions of children and sharply rebuked Democratic presidents while fiercely defending Republican ones.
A senator who shaped the highest court in the land as well as the whole judiciary, befriended liberal colleagues and became the protector of centuries-old traditions while simultaneously boosting the nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical industries, taking the side of big banks and Wall Street while fighting labor unions.
Hatch accumulated power and then used it to both push and prevent legislation.
Author Robert A. Caro famously characterized Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, as the “Master of the Senate.” Hatch may not have achieved the same title, but observers say he clearly mastered the game of Washington politics.
“Sen. Hatch has certainly shown a great deal of agility in dealing with the Senate’s rules and procedures,” says Don Ritchie, a Senate historian emeritus and longtime observer of the chamber. “I don’t think he aimed to ‘master’ the Senate the way LBJ and [West Virginia Democratic Sen.] Robert Byrd tried, but he learned how to bend it to make it more responsive. Although a tough partisan, he built some bipartisan alliances to pass significant legislation, which is the best indicator of a successful legislator.”
When Hatch becomes a former senator, he’ll be able to look back at a career that even political opponents call impressive.
His office didn’t respond to multiple requests from The Salt Lake Tribune to talk about his legacy.
He’s been more reluctant to sit down with a reporter one on one in recent years. In many ways, this showcases the difference between younger Hatch and the elder statesman of today.
Hatch’s team has turned to social media and videos to promote the now-84-year-old senator’s work, often poking fun at his age — noting, for example, that one of the most successful people Hatch has ever met was George Washington — and making a joke of the moment, captured on video, when the senator tried to remove nonexistent eyeglasses.
As during his first year, though, Hatch kept up his packed schedule until the end and didn’t exhibit the loss of energy or focus that other senior members have.
How do you tell a story about a senator who served four decades? Let’s start from the beginning.
Hatch wasn’t expected to win.
It was 1976, and Democratic Sen. Frank Moss was in his third term representing Utah, which at the time was much more politically diverse.
Hatch, a Latter-day Saint and graduate of Brigham Young University who had moved his law practice to Salt Lake City from Pittsburgh, filed to run for the Senate on the last possible day. His wife, Elaine, cried for three days and friends wondered why Hatch, with no previous political experience, would jump in the race.
Thanks to a last-minute endorsement from California Gov. Ronald Reagan — who initially sent a telegram stating his support for “Warren Hatch” before correcting it — Hatch secured the GOP nomination and later, riding a red wave, bested Moss.
While his new colleagues advised Hatch to lie low and learn the ropes in his first year, the freshman senator didn’t want to be a back bencher.
He went toe to toe with President Jimmy Carter over energy policy, battled unions and clashed with his fellow Utah Republican senator, Jake Garn.
A former boxer, Hatch signaled early on that he was willing to fight. His agenda then mirrors his agenda now: a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a ban on flag burning and an expansion of religious freedom, among others.
Hatch now laments how his beloved chamber has changed. Way back when, senators moved their families to the Washington area, dined together and socialized. Even at highly partisan times, there were deals to be made across the aisle.
In his farewell speech on the Senate floor, Hatch said it had been the honor of his life to serve in the body and put his stamp on the country’s laws.
“No matter how often I come to speak at this lectern, I experience that feeling — again and again,” Hatch said. “But today, if I’m being honest, I also feel sadness. Indeed, my heart is heavy. It aches for the times when we actually lived up to our reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body. It longs for the days in which Democrats and Republicans would meet on middle ground rather than retreat to partisan trenches.”
Hatch’s bond with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy highlights what was and now isn’t.
The Utah conservative and Massachusetts liberal were almost as far apart on the political spectrum as you could find, but they forged a relationship that allowed them to work together on legislation, not the least of which was the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
The program, the largest expansion of America’s social safety net since the launch of Medicaid, was designed to give states money to provide health insurance for children whose families made too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy their own insurance.
Across the aisle
Hatch would always argue that he got the better deal than Kennedy, but, either way, their friendship was an example of partisan rivals hammering it out together.
The Utah Republican isn’t sure such a relationship exists anymore.
“Nine years after Teddy’s passing, it’s worth asking: Could a relationship like this even exist in today’s Senate?” Hatch asked in his last Senate speech. “Could two people with polar-opposite beliefs and from vastly different walks of life come together as often as Teddy and I did for the good of the country? Or are we too busy attacking each other to even consider friendship with the other side?”
Of course, Hatch isn’t blameless in widening the partisan divide that dominates Washington now.
While calling for more civility as he leaves office, Hatch has castigated Democrats and liberals — he once called supporters of Obamacare “one of the stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met” — and has been a staunch defender of President Donald Trump even as the White House occupant has upended traditional norms of the office.
With multiple investigations swirling around Trump and his former and current aides, Hatch has dismissed the probes even as guilty pleas on federal charges accumulate from Trump’s former campaign manager, national security adviser and personal lawyer.
“I don’t care,” Hatch told CNN before walking it back days later and noting even the president isn’t above the law.
Hatch had previously said Trump could be one of the best presidents ever, a comment that rankled some presidential historians.
Jim Manley, a former top aide to Kennedy, says the Hatch of yesteryear has vanished.
“I’m not so sure that the Sen. Hatch my former boss Sen. Kennedy worked with on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for instance, exists anymore,” Manley said. “I mean, as far as I’m concerned, no one epitomizes the rightward lurch of the Republican Party more than Sen. Hatch. He is, after all, someone who prided himself for years on his ability to fight like hell and reach a compromise with Democrats. But in recent years that guy is nowhere to be found.”
Hatch has always prided himself as a conservative, but with the rise of the tea party within the Republican Party, the senator found himself tilting even more to the right as he sought re-election in 2012. Two years before that, Hatch’s then-colleague Bob Bennett, R-Utah, lost his bid for another term in a conservative revolt.
While some retiring GOP senators, such as Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, have openly criticized Trump’s freewheeling, go-it-alone style and rhetoric, Hatch has remained steadfast in support of this White House.
Manley, now a Democratic consultant, says these past couple of years alone will tar Hatch’s legacy.
“Like Speaker [Paul] Ryan, [Hatch’s] unwillingness to challenge this president, especially given his position as president pro tem, is going to tarnish his legacy. And this is a radical departure from, you know, the honest, God-fearing Orrin Hatch of years past.”
During his tenure, Hatch has cast north of 14,500 votes at last count, more than all but five senators in the nation’s history.
He has said that he regrets a few of those votes, not the least of which was opposing the creation of Martin Luther King Day in 1983. That vote, Hatch said, was “one of the worst decisions I have made as a senator,” and he chalked it up to his focus on the economic impact rather than the importance of celebrating King’s life.
Hatch touts his effectiveness as a legislator, noting his ability to pass CHIP, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the STOP School Violence Act.
All passed with bipartisan support.
The Center for Effective Lawmaking named Hatch the “most effective in the Senate” in 2017, and colleagues extolled the senator for his work and his comity.
“Orrin Hatch has consistently maintained a demeanor that represented the Senate well — and that is an understatement — over the course of his illustrious and record-setting 42-year career,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. “As a matter of fact, I think the definition of ‘gentleman’ in the new edition of Webster’s dictionary simply lists two words: ‘Orrin Hatch.’”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a veteran Vermont Democrat who often disagreed with Hatch, still says the Utah Republican was a great friend.
“Sen. Hatch has shown a commitment to his beliefs,” Leahy said. “As both a chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee during my tenures in both posts, we have had more than one occasion to partner, to spar and to share a laugh.
“He will be remembered here in the Senate as a respected colleague,” Leahy added.
Hatch will also be remembered for the many titles he held: chairman of the Senate Finance, Judiciary and Labor committees as well as heading up various special panels over technology and pensions.
For a short time, Hatch was also a presidential candidate before his campaign in 2000 collapsed in Iowa. Meanwhile, he also scored a few small roles in Hollywood movies and earned a platinum record for his music career.
His last title, that given to the most senior member of the majority, is president pro tem, a constitutionally designated post that essentially meant Hatch took the place of Vice President Mike Pence, who is technically president of the Senate.
The title is mostly ceremonious, but Hatch was responsible for signing legislation passed by the Senate before it headed to the president’s desk. And it came with a round-the-clock security detail, a premium office in the Capitol and a pay raise. Hatch will lose all of that Jan. 3, when Sen.-elect Mitt Romney takes over the seat that Hatch has held for longer than most Utahns have been alive.
What his future holds is unclear, though the longtime Utah senator will be heading up a new center called the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation that will seek to educate future leaders and archive his papers.
After 42 years, that’s a lot of paper.