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Paul S. Edwards: Deseret News dialogue with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch

Published: Sunday, Oct. 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

With the patent legislation that he both advocated on the floor of the Senate (with generous reference to Utah's inventors) and voted on that day, he notes the difficulty of drafting good law that balances the poignant concerns of universities, the high-tech community, medical device manufacturers, and pharmaceuticals on the one hand while keeping together a bi-partisan coalition for reform on the other. And, he emphasizes, not worry about who gets the credit.

"Sometimes I'll hear from folks that seniority doesn't count," says the senator. "Well, tell that to the folks on Captain Sullenberger's flight that landed safely in the Hudson River. They would have been dead it wasn't for experience. To be able to handle all of these things right takes experience."

Dignity and honor

What also shines through in Hatch's account of his work is the importance of dignity and honor in the workings of the Senate — especially the honor of keeping one's word.

So, for example, as he discusses the challenging politics that have kept the Senate from approving Hatch's decades-long struggle for a balanced budget amendment, he is gentle on the late Sen. Mark Hadfield, R-Ore., longtime chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who on principle opposed the amendment.

Of Hatfield, Hatch says, "He was a really solid good Christian, and an absolutely sterling person of dignity and honor. It was a blow to me that we couldn't get him to vote for the balanced budget amendment. But I'm not going to hold it against someone who sincerely believes in what they do."

On the other hand, of the late Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., Hatch expresses dismay because of Heinz's decision to vote against a balanced budget amendment at the last moment, depriving the amendment of its needed 67th vote.

"At the last minute at the last day," recalls Hatch, "the unions came in and said we're not going to support you if you do this, in fact we're going to vote against you. And he flipped on us."

"And afterwards I went up to him as said: 'Doesn't your word mean anything.' And he almost cried and said, 'You don't have to be mean about it.' I said 'Mean? You ought to see how I really feel.'"

Wistfully, Hatch remarks, "Can you imagine where we would be today if we had passed that and had ratified it? We wouldn't be in this colossal mess that we're in today."

He expresses a similar dismay for how the Obama Administration has dithered on free trade agreements with Columbia, Korea and Panama: "They were promised before we went on recess in August and they're still not there."

Promises mean everything to Hatch and he seems, in an almost childlike way, bewildered by those who would balk on promises for short-term political gain.

By design, making national public policy in the Senate is difficult. Unlike the House of Representatives, where cohesive party structures help to push legislation over a simple majority threshold, the Senate increasingly requires super- majorities to pass legislation. And although party matters, the autonomy of individual senators cannot be overstated.

In this environment of dispersed and jealously guarded power, Hatch's ability to mobilize the required majorities over and over again, first in subcommittee, then in committee and then on the floor of the Senate, is a rare and refined ability.

But that ability doesn't appear to come from Machiavellian intrigue or manipulation. Instead, it seems to come from being an honest and trustworthy broker.

After cordially addressing some of his senatorial colleagues, he quietly says to me, "These guys all know who I am because I've helped them in so many ways. They know I'm good for my word. And, if you don't worry about who gets the credit, you can do a lot of good things here, things that hopefully make us freer and improve people's lives."

Paul Edwards is the editorial page editor for the Deseret News. Email:pedwards@desnews.com

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