Washington, D.C., is filled to the brim with skilled politicians and bright people. What it has in short supply are people who possess those characteristics and who also are wonderful human beings.
Orrin Grant Hatch, the senior United States senator from Utah and president pro tempore of the Senate, is one of that very small number of people.
On Tuesday, he announced that he will retire from the Senate when his current term ends a year from now. When that happens, the Senate will lose one of its historic figures.
Hatch has a reputation for believing in the importance of our Constitution, including its limitations. That is no mean feat in modern-day politics.
People generally don’t care what the Constitution says. People want the federal government to make their lives not just secure, but easy, free from any obstacle that could interfere with their personal happiness.
The American public has come to demand that the government solve every problem that life throws their way, regardless of whether the federal government has the legal authority to do so.
“Who cares what the Constitution says? I’ve got a problem, and the federal government should fix it. Besides, every other member of Congress has promised to fix it. Constitution, smonstitution. Just fix the problem, legality be damned!”
The truth is different. No government can solve every problem and make life nothing but strawberries and cream. Any Congress that tried would only leave matters worse.
Like the Framers, Hatch knew that. And like the Framers, he feared the type of arrogant, omnipotent polity that we have come to take for granted.
Why? A government that tries to solve every problem won’t do everything well and will create more problems than it can solve. The Framers knew that 200-plus years ago, and Hatch has known that since he first assumed office in 1977.
Hatch had the good fortune to be in the Senate in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. In that position, Hatch was able to play the lead role in shepherding through the advice-and-consent process and onto the bench judges—like Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia—who made landmark changes to the proper methodology of constitutional analysis.
No longer was the text of the Constitution merely an opinion, a guide, or mere advice. No longer could a judge take or leave it when the text didn’t support the result that the judge wanted.
Hatch believed that the text was “law” in every sense that mattered. Though he did not serve on the Supreme Court, he helped Reagan and both Presidents Bush appoint judges who had the same view of constitutional law that he held.
Does that mean he does not realize the hardships that can befall people? Far from it.
Hatch wasn’t rich. His father was a metal lather. He grew up in a home without indoor plumbing. He had eight brothers and sisters—two did not survive infancy, and one died in combat in World War II.
He had his share of adversity, and no one who ever knew him could honestly say he was not moved by the suffering of others. He was—he just didn’t believe that public life should be just another version of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or “Dr. Phil.”
I will confess that I am prejudiced. I worked for Hatch in the 1990s when he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I had the opportunity to know him in a way that only those people who worked closely with him could hope to learn.
Many staffers for other senators did not have the same experience that I did. But that is because Hatch is a special person.
I came away from that experience with three conclusions that have stayed with me to this day. America has been a better place because he has dedicated his life to public service; the Congress has been a better institution because he has been a part of it; and everyone who has had the privilege of working for him is a better person because we were able to know someone who is one of God’s greatest gifts to us all.
Come January 2019, Hatch will leave the Senate so that someone else can serve as a U.S. senator from Utah. When he does, he will leave big shoes to fill.