WASHINGTON — Sen. Max Baccus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has called the committee to order. Sitting next to him is the ranking Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah.
The pound of the gavel quiets voices, but it doesn't stop the commotion throughout the magisterial committee room.
Whether it is young staff members scurrying with notes for their senators, or senators themselves wandering in and out, the elegantly paneled room — home to arguably the most important legislative committee in the world because of its jurisdiction over the tax and spending authority of the United States — is a hive of activity as it considers complex issues of international tax reform.
But one person stays raptly focused on the entire discussion and the panel of tax experts that have assembled. Not Baccus, who, after making an opening statement announces he must attend to other business. Instead, it is Hatch, to whom Baccus hands the gavel as he leaves.
Given how the 2012 senatorial campaign seems to be lining up in favor of Republicans, the symbolism in Baccus's handing over the gavel to Hatch on a day of mundane business in the Senate cannot be lost to close observers of Washington. Depending on the outcome of the 2012 election, it is possible that Hatch could find himself as chair of the Finance Committee in just over a year.
In order to appreciate better what such a switch could mean for Hatch and for Utah, the Deseret News spent the better part of a rainy September day with Hatch.
Not many "light days"
By the time we caught up with Hatch in his tastefully appointed office at 8:30 a.m. he had already been up almost four hours. He regularly rises before dawn to exercise on his elliptical and spend a few moments with his wife Elaine before getting to his senatorial office by seven.
His staff wanders in about the time we do, but Hatch has already watched some of the early morning news, read several major newspapers and reviewed memos prepared by his staff. He has also appeared on CNBC's "Squawk Box."
"It's a very, very busy life, but I wouldn't have it any other way," says Hatch, who also tells us (warns us?) that "This is a typical day. I don't get many light days. It is hard to be prepared for one of these days because there are so many important interactions."
Before the day is through Hatch will have chaired a session of the Finance Committee on international corporate tax reform, addressed a press conference on the economic agenda for the Western Caucus, spoken on the floor of the Senate in favor of a pending overhaul of the U.S. patent system, attended a confidential briefing regarding the background of judicial appointees, raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Republican Senatorial Committee, met with constituents, voted on a major piece of legislation and attended a joint session of Congress to hear President Barack Obama present his jobs package.
And, because of his senatorial commitments, he will have reluctantly declined a plea from his wife Elaine to help deal with a flooding basement in their Oakton, Va., residence. (We understand that his son was able to help out).
But throughout his hectic day, the surprisingly soft-spoken Senator is indefatigable, ever gracious and eager to engage on the substance and complexities of fiscal policy, free speech, religious liberty, public lands, energy development, tax law, the patent system and embryonic cell research.
And what shines through in his account is the daily challenge of staying on top of the complexity of the substantive issues while also balancing the delicate politics.
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:firstname.lastname@example.org