Orrin Hatch Was the Quiet Architect of Our Miseries

The rote memorials hailing Orrin Hatch’s civility and bipartisanship miss the point. Hatch was a committed, often fierce right-wing warrior who served corporate power and reshaped the political order toward greater misery.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, DC. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

If you’ve read the obituaries for even one old-guard conservative who died in the post–Donald Trump era, you know more or less how they’re all going to go: the anecdote of personal kindness; the humanizing, quirky details; the collection of sweeping platitudes packed with words like “legacy” and “service” that fail to mention anything they actually did; and of course, the endless tributes to the way this person embodied long-lost political values like civility, bipartisanship, compromise, and friendship.

So it’s gone with Orrin Hatch, the conservative stalwart and longest-serving Republican senator, who died earlier this week at the age of eighty-eight. As with every long-serving Republican, politicians and pundits have wasted no time in turning Hatch into the last representative of a bygone era of supposed political moderation and camaraderie — an era that, to the extent it ever actually existed, largely predated Hatch’s time in the Senate, and which he played a leading role in finally smothering.

Hatch didn’t really embody these values any more than did Bob Dole, John McCain, George H. W. Bush, or the countless other old-guard Republicans who’ve been held up as the same over the past few years. But Hatch did embody something else: the political shift from the values of the New Deal era to the long period of corporate-backed, anti-government nihilism that we remain mired in, and which has caused every simmering crisis that we’re currently staring down.

Hatch entered Congress by winning a stunning upset against three-term incumbent Frank Moss, a staunch New Dealer and friend of labor who opposed the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons and backed civil rights and government programs protecting ordinary people from runaway corporate power. The right-to-work-supporting Hatch famously beat him despite never having served in any political office, with no experience in campaigning, and having only moved to Utah eight years earlier. It would mark the very last time a Democrat represented the state in the US Senate.

It oddly mirrored the career trajectory of the man who would serve as Hatch’s longtime colleague and friend: Joe Biden, who likewise kicked off a historically lengthy Senate career by beating an entrenched incumbent more progressive than he was.

This wasn’t the only overlap between the two men: both were instrumental in rewriting the US criminal code that led the US prison population to explode; played leading roles in dragging Anita Hill through the mud to protect her Supreme Court–aspiring predator; chafed against taxes and the size of government while steadfastly expanding repressive law enforcement powers; did favors for corporate campaign donors at the expense of the ordinary public, including on the issue of bankruptcy; flamed out in Iowa during aborted presidential campaigns; and spurned changes in social attitudes, partly by advancing breathtakingly restrictive antiabortion measures.

The president naturally paid tribute to Hatch this week as a man “who looked out for the people who often didn’t have a voice in our laws and our country.”

Rebel, Rebel

Once in the Senate, Hatch quickly established himself as a right-wing ideologue par excellence. His first term coincided with the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement among Western states to return public lands from federal to local control and consequently deregulate their use. Both the movement and the legislative coalition advancing its goals, which counted Hatch as a member, were funded by the extractive industries that stood to profit handsomely from this effort.

This was by no means a fleeting interest for Hatch, who spent the rest of his career trying to open up one of Utah’s greatest assets — its stunning natural wilderness —to rapacious corporate exploitation. He tried repeatedly to drastically limit the amount of protected acres for Utah’s Red Rock Wilderness, a critical carbon sink, railed against the “executive hubris” of Barack Obama’s monument designation for the state’s Bears Ears site, and introduced a 2018 bill to let fossil fuel and mining companies have their way with 1.5 million acres worth of public land in Central Utah. He finally found a champion in Donald Trump, who at Hatch’s behest shrank the monument designation of both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante areas.

Having already ejected a major union ally from the Senate, Hatch set about dealing another blow to workers by leading the five-week-long filibuster against Jimmy Carter’s Labor Law Reform Act, a top priority for organized labor that would’ve strengthened labor protections and assisted unionization efforts. Acting on behalf of the intense business opposition to the measure, Hatch and others overcame its majority support in both chambers of Congress by talking it to death, with the bill ultimately unable to clear six whole cloture votes — the same sixty-vote threshold that bedevils lawmakers today.

“A lot of people still don’t know me,” Hatch complained in 1978. “If they did, they would realize I hold a progressive record on such things as civil rights, youth employment, small business, and disability benefits for pregnant ladies.”

But Hatch was an implacable foe of civil rights. Calling affirmative action “an assault on America, conceived in lies,” he explored a constitutional amendment to ban it in the 1980s and continued to fight against it into the 1990s. He worked to weaken fair housing legislation on behalf of real estate interests, filibustered an effort to make civil rights laws apply to institutions receiving federal funds, and voted against making Martin Luther King Jr day a holiday, a vote he later disavowed when changing mores made it politically damaging.

Despite his own desperately poor origins, Hatch had little sympathy for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. He denounced Carter’s welfare proposal as a “$6 billion catastrophe” that would be better replaced by tax cuts and declared that “anytime you say you have a program to help 29 million poor people in a country of 212 million people, something is wrong with your thinking.” He enthusiastically backed Bill Clinton’s disastrous welfare reform initiative (“The taxpayers aren’t going to be ripped off as much in the future”) and continued well into the 2010s to champion policies that made accessing welfare harder and more unjust, even amid the chronic poverty and joblessness that followed the 2008 crash.

The senator from Delaware was often Hatch’s partner in crime — literally so, with the two helping rewrite the federal criminal code to establish harsher prison sentences, weaken bail, and eliminate parole. The two steadfastly backed federal law enforcement over the Waco and Ruby Ridge disasters, and worked together on the civil liberties–shredding anti-terror legislation that followed, Hatch urging Biden to drop attempts to restore some particularly objectionable measures in order to get the bill over the line. In the years that followed, Hatch was a major backer of Biden’s horrendous bankruptcy bill, saying it was only fair that “those who can pay their bills should pay their bills.”

“Sympathy for the Downtrodden”

Hatch’s reputation for bipartisanship and compromise stems from a mid-career, surprise-twist liberal turn, which saw him disappoint conservatives by championing federally supported child care, the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the compiling of statistics for hate crimes including those against gays, and, much later, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The latter was particularly surprising for an anti-government, anti-“handout” firebrand, entailing as it did a major expansion of the federal role in children’s health care.

Hatch claimed that he had merely matured, been tamed by the nature of the Senate, and that “the real Orrin Hatch” had “always felt sympathy for the downtrodden, those who get the short end of the stick.” Others pointed out that these bills were also convenient for someone who had long been angling for a Supreme Court seat and who would need to prove he was a “reasonable” conservative if nominated.

In any case, Hatch would later oppose a United Nations treaty banning discrimination against disabled people, even when former GOP majority leader and presidential nominee Bob Dole, with a serious disability of his own, was wheeled onto the Senate floor by his wife in support of it. Later, once he was out of office, Hatch called for the ADA to be watered down, concerned about the burden it put on small businesses.

Meanwhile, Hatch’s sympathy for the uninsured had stark limits. CHIP, a vital program even today, was specifically targeted at families who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid. As far as Hatch was concerned, the families who did prove poor enough to qualify were expendable. In 2011, he advocated that Medicaid should go the same way as welfare reform and be delegated to state governments to cut, pilfer, and restrict as they would. It had “turned into substitute health insurance for nearly one-quarter of the population,” he complained. Once Trump came along, he signed onto the former president’s savage cuts to the program.

And if you weren’t a kid, then you simply weren’t worthy of any of his sympathy. Hatch was a foe of Obamacare (“the stupidest, dumbass bill that I’ve ever seen,” supported by the “stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met”) to the bitter end, claiming its individual mandate provision was a violation of liberty — even though he had happily sponsored a bill with that very provision during the Clinton years.

He railed against the “unprecedented” use of budget reconciliation to pass the law, an outrage that had escaped him seven years earlier when he’d gone along with George W. Bush’s use of it to hand the rich massive tax cuts. He would vote repeatedly over the years to repeal the bill and strip millions of their health insurance, telling disability rights activists to “shut up” as they protested the heartless effort. Incidentally, all were strict party-line votes.

Bye, Partisan

None of this quite fits with Hatch’s newfound reputation as a beacon of civility and compromise. But then, he had always been a partisan warrior, combining a clear-eyed, conservative militancy with a somewhat lower profile than his more attention-hungry colleagues, qualities that allowed him to quietly help transform the judiciary into the conservative firewall it is today.

“I don’t want the federal judiciary to become a football,” Hatch said in 1998, just as he had ground Clinton’s judicial nominees to a halt. With Hatch chairing the judiciary committee, the Senate soon reached one of its slowest years confirming judges up to that point, widening the already sizable judicial vacancy rate further, leading even the Supreme Court chief justice to complain. That court, incidentally, is where Hatch had his most lasting influence.

“Arguably more than any other senator, Orrin Hatch has helped shape the Supreme Court for decades,” legal scholar Jonathan Turley said upon his retirement. Hatch had a major hand in nominating and confirming nearly every sitting justice, perhaps none more infamously than Clarence Thomas, his efforts to get the ultraconservative judge enabled by his old ally Biden’s inexplicable undermining of his accuser while serving as judiciary committee chair.

It was Hatch’s careful coaching and pointed questioning that helped Thomas survive a bruising confirmation hearing. So did some good old-fashioned hardball: Hatch falsely accused a Democratic colleague of leaking the FBI report on Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill (“I won’t forgive him until my dying day,” said the senator) while viciously attacking Hill, at one point charging she had copied her accusations from The Exorcist. And for all their storied bipartisan friendship, Hatch struck back at Ted Kennedy just as hard, responding to his cries of “Shame!” by saying that “anybody who believes that, I know a bridge up in Massachusetts that I’ll be happy to sell them” — a thinly veiled reference to the senator’s Chappaquiddick scandal.

Hatch ruthlessly pursued this right-wing domination of the Supreme Court to his very last years in the Senate, making his current transformation into a standard-bearer for civility and bipartisanship all the more impressive. Hatch came out hard and early against so much as holding hearings for Barack Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, despite having called him a “consensus nominee” for the position and vowing to “do my best to help him get” Senate votes just six years earlier.

Once that spot was filled by one Trump appointee, Hatch equally ruthlessly helped ram through the next one, Brett Kavanaugh, another GOP nominee plagued by a sexual misconduct scandal. Hatch admonished the protesters demonstrating against the nominee to “grow up” and insisted that his accuser had simply mixed him up for someone else, before telling reporters that it wasn’t important anyway. Hatch had his eyes on the prize: Kavanaugh’s confirmation put in place all the pieces for a right-wing supermajority on the court, which Trump would achieve in 2020, less than two years after Hatch’s retirement.

Book of Mammon

Meanwhile, Hatch dove into Washington’s culture of legalized bribery with a brazenness that outdid many of his colleagues — and with disastrous results for the US public.

Aides spinning through the revolving door out of Hatch’s office and into the corporate world were such a regular occurrence, they got their own Capitol Hill nickname: “Hatchlings.” And no Hatchling was closer to its parent than former chief of staff Thomas Parry, who, the Wall Street Journal reported in 1993, built his own lobbying firm serving clients who conveniently had business before Hatch, and who also filled his campaign coffers.

A former Republican National Committee chair openly said, and Hatch tacitly acknowledged, that he had “gone out of his way to send business to Parry” — and Parry sent it right back, setting up $2,000-a-session speaking appearances for Hatch and fundraising for him off his clients. None of this stopped Parry from continuing to serve as a senior advisor to the senator, devising political and legislative strategy for him and letting his staff conduct strategy sessions in his three-story town-house office, all of which Hatch dismissed as a mere “frivolous appearance problem.”

Hatch was especially good to the dietary supplement industry, which gave generously to his campaigns; he was personally invested in it and turned Utah into its home base, the industry becoming the state’s largest by 2012. He successfully blocked the Food and Drug Administration from imposing new labeling rules on supplements until 1993 and the following year passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which effectively abolished government regulation of the industry, opening the floodgates to a variety of dangerous products and “facilitat[ing] the legal marketing of quackery,” in one expert’s words.

The pharmaceutical industry that showered Hatch with more money over his career than any other was similarly well compensated by the senator. Hatch once filed a friend of the court brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of Eli Lilly, a donor and another Parry client, admitting he had coauthored a 1984 law protecting the company’s exclusive patent on a heart pacemaker. He “consistently supported drug corporations’ monopoly pricing power,” one expert told STAT in 2018.

His 1984 Hatch-Waxman Act both spurred the manufacturing of generic drugs and expanded patent protections, and Hatch later slipped in measures extending exclusivity for biologic drugs and shielding certain ones from Medicare price restrictions. But Hatch was happy to help any campaign donors regardless of industry, as when he obliged a debt collector and fundraiser by pushing to gut a 1972 law providing federal protection to people who write bad checks.

Embrace of Trump

By the time Trump came to power at the tail end of his career, Hatch, who had earlier successfully led the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment, had softened on some of his social conservatism. In 2013, he was one of the few Republicans to vote for barring job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But even after disavowing his early-career comments that Democrats were the “party of homosexuals” and that he “wouldn’t want to see homosexuals teaching school any more than I’d want to see members of the American Nazi Party teaching school,” he nevertheless backed the Defense of Marriage Act and filed a friend of the court brief against the constitutional challenge it faced in 2013. And he continued to militantly oppose abortion rights, having authored the 1982 Hatch Amendment whose aim was gutting Roe v. Wade, and which his buddy Biden had voted to advance.

Like almost every major right-wing figure, Hatch got over an initial mild reluctance to back Trump and fully embraced the former reality TV star through the 2016 campaign to the end of his Senate days. Hatch campaigned hard for Trump and defended him throughout his presidency, at one point saying he didn’t care if he had broken the law as prosecutors alleged in the Stormy Daniels affair, because he was “doing a good job as president.” Hatch established himself as one of the most loyal Republicans to Trump, voting in line with the president 96 percent of the time.

His loyalty was rewarded when Trump had him lead the charge on one of Hatch’s long-standing goals. With GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress, what did Hatch, with his lifelong “sympathy for the downtrodden,” turn his efforts to? Shepherding a massive $1-trillion tax cut tailored overwhelmingly for the rich through Congress, which colleagues said would “be the capstone of the career of a senator who has passed more legislation than any other person in Congress.”

Hatch loaded the bill up with goodies for corporate interests and the wealthy and personally profited from its provisions, while at the same time fearmongering about the deficit when it came to keeping CHIP, his own program, funded for a comparatively paltry $14 billion. Yet he was outraged — outraged! — that anyone would suggest this was a favor to the rich.

“I come from the poor people,” he howled. “And I’ve been here working my whole stinkin’ career for people who don’t have a chance. And I really resent anybody saying that I’m just doing this for the rich.”

Going Through the Motions

Little about Hatch’s actual record matches the media portrayal that’s emerged of him this past week. Like the viral clip of Hatch taking off a pair of glasses he wasn’t actually wearing, these eulogies are simply the political establishment going through the motions, reflexively pulling out the same tired script that’s become de rigueur for old-guard conservatives in the age of Trump.

In the process, they’ve ironically done Hatch an injustice, failing to explain the full significance of his career. Hatch’s triumph wasn’t as a moderate working across the aisle for civility and decency. He was an ideological warrior who could be both fierce and pragmatic in the pursuit of his goals, and proved a pivotal figure in both shifting the US political landscape firmly to the right and dramatically expanding the scope of corporate power and conservative policy goals.

It’s a tragedy that Hatch was able to do any of this, of course. But it’s also a tragedy that even today, he has few counterparts among his political opponents.