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Thursday, April 19, 2012
Why I Support Senator Orrin Hatch (Part Four)

In this fourth and -- at least for now -- final installment, I list and discuss criticisms of Senator Hatch's record which are true, in contrast to the lies and deceptions I discussed last time.

(Here are Part One , Part Two , and Part Three of this series.)

To their credit, Senator Orrin Hatch's major opponents for the Republican nomination for US Senate are better than FreedomWorks at sticking to truth and avoiding lies and deception, where Hatch's voting record is concerned. But even FreedomWorks gets a few things right along the way. Today I discuss some of the true criticisms -- and how much they do or do not trouble me as a conservative.

Let's start with the most obvious one: tenure.

Six Terms, Possibly Going on Seven

By the end of the current term, Senator Hatch will have been in office for 36 years. Another full term will bring that total to 42 years. That's a long time. Hatch's opponents think that's too long and, as challengers tend to do, even wishfully speak of term limits. They gleefully point out that, in his first campaign, Hatch said that 18 years of his incumbent opponent was enough.

In many cases 18 or 36 or 42 years would be too long. In some cases, 36 or 42 days would be too long. There's some concern that, the longer a senator or member of congress serves in Washington, the more fully he is coopted by the system to serve the interests of the Beltway crowd more than his district, state, or nation. It's a reasonable concern, but too simplistic. Many are coopted long before they arrive for their first term. And some manage to resist the leftward pressure inside the Beltway for decades. I've been watching Orrin Hatch work for about a quarter-century, sometimes at close range. I think he's still conservative; I don't think he's been coopted. And based on his body of work to date, I want to see what he can do with one more term, with -- one hopes -- a Republican president, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, a major committee chairmanship, and possibly some serious pressure towards imposing sanity on federal spending (among other things). So I can vote for him eagerly, even if others who disagree cannot.

I'm not a big fan of term limits for the House or Senate; I prefer to trust the voters. Some self-identified "strict constructionists" and "constitutionalists" like to argue that the Founders never intended for elected officials to be career politicians. However, there was a wide diversity of views among the Founders -- including the subset who attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention -- so it means little, where original intent is concerned, that some of them might have thought one way or another. The United States Constitution is the product of a host of major compromises among people who thought differently on many points. The text itself is the best authority on their collective intent. As ratified, the Constitution said nothing of term limits, until it was amended in the 20th century to limit presidential terms. So there is no constitutional argument to be made in favor of term limits, even if there is a philosophical or historical one.

Hatch's opponents have been lavish and grandiose in thanking him for his 36 years of service, just before they explain why he should be forced to retire. The other day, I had a chance to chat with him briefly, after listening to him answer state delegates' questions for two hours. Among other things, I told him something I had been wanting to say for a while.

I thanked him for running one more time.

Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP)

One of the Tea Party's key grievances with . . . well, almost every incumbent . . . is TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, sometimes called the bank bailout. Near the end of President Bush's second term, the country's banking system was imploding, as insane federal mortgage policy chickens came home to roost. There was serious threat of further collapse, and there were some serious possible international consequences, too. The only legislative response on the table was TARP, an effort to prop up some major pieces of the structure. Orrin Hatch and many other conservatives voted for the bill. For some voters, this was an unpardonable sin; some have told me they would have welcomed further financial collapse. I'm not a big fan of TARP as originally passed, but I concede the possibility that it prevented further collapse. I also admit the possibility that its defeat would have communicated to the financial and political world (and I mean world) that the United States was unwilling or unable to address its own crisis, a perception which could have had serious repercussions worldwide. Even Glenn Beck supported it at the time, but I don't know whether anyone of his fans in Utah remember that.

FreedomWorks and some of its surrogates have claimed that Hatch voted to reauthorize TARP later under President Obama, when it had become clear that funds were being misused. As I noted yesterday, this is false. Hatch voted against reauthorization.

State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)

Hatch's opponents cite his sponsorship of SCHIP as an irresponsible federal power grab in the area of health care. I see it as an excellent example of the need to stop and listen for a few minutes before passing such judgments, and of the need to legislate in the real world, not an ideological fantasy world. I was at a meeting with Senator Hatch the other day, when a fellow delegate asked him about SCHIP. He explained that many low-income working families were unable to afford health insurance, so, for the sake of their children, they would quit working, so as to qualify for Medicaid. Like it or not, Medicaid exists, and it and unemployment are both far more expensive than SCHIP.

SCHIP made money available to states to subsidize health insurance for children in such families, so the parents could say in the productive economy and not recede into the parasitic sector of the welfare state -- saving taxpayers a lot of money. Given that he couldn't repeal Medicaid single-handedly and replace it with a system friendlier to conservative principles (or no federal system at all), but had to work within existing structures, I think SCHIP as originally passed was a prudent exercise of common sense and conservative principles.

Later, under Obama and the Democrats, SCHIP became just another welfare program. In one of many Orwellian moments in recent years, they even added childless parents to the program. Senator Hatch voted against reauthorizing it. (Staying in character, FreedomWorks gets this one wrong; they say he voted to reauthorize.) Maybe we should blame the senator for creating a monster in an effort to restrain a bigger monster. But SCHIP didn't begin as a monster; it became a monster later, in more profligate, Democratic hands.

National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA)

More than a few of my fellow conservatives are livid over one section of NDAA, an expansive bill which authorizes defense spending for fiscal year 2012. It's not that they're opposed to the Defense Department generally -- at least most of them aren't. They just think that the section in question abolishes two or three amendments in the Bill of Rights. I've read that part of the bill -- and I've studied the Bill of Rights for years -- and I just don't see what they see. For daring to mention my disagreement, I have been called, as recently as this week, blind, foolish, ignorant, stupid, liberal, unpatriotic, and un-American. Such is the price of dissenting from far-right orthodoxy in Utah in 2012. But they save their strongest language for Senator Hatch and others who voted for the bill: these they call traitors, guilty of treason.

The section attracting all this heat permits the detention of enemy combatants for the duration of a war, according to the laws of war, without criminal charges or civil trial. Asked about this at a recent meeting I attended, Senator Hatch explained that this section of NDAA makes no new law, but summarizes ("codifies," he said) laws already on the books elsewhere. He might have explained, but didn't, that the furor over this part of NDAA is really displaced from the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). There is a long-standing debate over the scope of that act, especially over the bounds of its definitions of "enemy combatants" and "belligerents." The problem, if there is one, is in AUMF, not NDAA.

One observer has written that NDAA "allows people who think the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks gives the president the authority to detain US citizens without charge or trial to say that [NDAA does the same thing], but it also allows people who can read the Constitution of the United States to argue something else."

There are several bills pending on Capitol Hill to clarify this question. Some clarification would be welcome. Meanwhile, the ACLU and some strange bedfellows on the right will continue to abuse those of us who disagree, and I will continue to support Orrin Hatch's reelection.

Multiple Votes to Raise the Debt Limit Ceiling

Senator Hatch's opponents are quick to note that in his 35 years of service he's voted to raise the federal debt ceiling more than a dozen times. (Opponents say 16 times; the Hatch campaign says 15 times -- not that it matters.) They don't always mention that he's also voted against raising it 16 times -- under Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama. Most of the debt ceiling increases he favored were requested by President Reagan, and most or all of those were in the context of needing to rebuild our military forces quickly and without massive tax increases to cripple a recovering economy -- after the military was decimated under the Carter administration. One of the increases he favored was under President Obama in 2011; a December 2011 article by Dick Armey himself, posted at FreedomWorks' own web site, said that increase was necessary "in order to avoid a national fiscal calamity." In several of his votes to increase the debt ceiling, Hatch was joined by Barry Goldwater, Phil Gram, Newt Gingrich, John Kasich, and, yes, Dick Armey himself -- along with most or all other Republicans then in office.

One of the debt limit increases he favored was included in the Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996, the key legislation to issue from the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Another was in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which contained the first balanced federal budget in decades.

So, not all debt ceiling increases are created equal, and there's also plenty of hypocrisy among Hatch's leading critics on this subject. But I think there's a deeper issue. Congress spends money in a two-step process, authorization and appropriation. Authorization sets forth what funds can and will be used for; appropriation actually provides the funds, in separate legislation. It's fairly common for expenditures to be authorized but then to fail to receive any appropriated funds. This two-step process is where debts and deficits are born, and it's where they need to be corrected. While it's clear to me and many others than chronic deficit spending is grossly irresponsible, there's also an argument to be made that never increasing the debt ceiling is the wrong place to attack the problem, that in some cases it would be akin to refusing to pay our obligations -- which could have catastrophic long-term fiscal effects. There's also a political argument to be made that the resultant government shutdown would, as before, push the White House and Congress even further to the left in coming election -- also with catastrophic long-term fiscal effects.

I applaud the use of proposed debt ceiling increases to attempt to achieve spending cuts and even a balanced budget amendment -- but (at least generally) as a condition of those increases, not through denying the increases. I'm well aware that these arguments do not persuade those who believe that all government debt is irresponsible, who prefer a catastrophic environment in which to attempt to enact reforms, or who blame Senator Hatch for everything that has happened in Washington, DC, in the last 35 years. I find myself in none of those camps.

Medicare Part D (Prescription Drugs)

I'm not a big fan of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. Senator Hatch explains that it's a relatively rare government program that costs less than original estimates, and that it is to some degree a private-sector solution to some problems in an area where the federal government is already heavily invested in its own, government-centric solutions. In the latter sense, I suppose it could have been a model for much saner health care reform than we got in ObamaCare.

The bottom line is, I don't see Part D as a reason to vote for Senator Hatch, but I don't find it sufficient cause to vote against him, either.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

I'm an elitist, I suppose. I read "No Child Left Behind" with an unstated subtitle: No Child Gets Ahead, Either. I'm not a fan of one-size-fits-all edicts from the federal education bureaucracy (or the state, for that matter), which you may safely take to mean that I'm not a fan of the federal education bureaucracy itself.

However, for those who can think outside the ideological box, there are two political considerations which might mitigate Hatch's and other conservatives' offense in promoting and voting for No Child Left Behind. First, for all its flaws, it was a step towards accountability in the classroom -- and this in an environment in which very powerful forces resist even the slightest nod toward accountability. Second, it was President George W. Bush's first major legislative initiative. There was real concern among conservative Republicans that, if it failed because of Republican nays, the Bush presidency would have been severely crippled from the outset -- which would have pushed things further left, not right.


Hatch's opponents routinely dismiss my arguments about his profound and positive conservative influence on the federal judiciary by listing some people they despise, whom Orrin Hatch has voted to confirm, including some liberal Supreme Court justices nominated by Democrat presidents. I think it's important to remember that Hatch has been concerned to defend not only the conservative nominees of Republican presidents, but also the confirmation process itself, against efforts by the left to destroy both the nominees and the process. Right or wrong, if you expect Orrin Hatch to preside over the borking of a Democrat president's liberal Supreme Court nominee, you'll be disappointed. He thinks it's bad for the process and therefore the country in the long term -- and if you watched closely the inquisitions of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, or some of the things the left tried to do more recently with Samuel Alito and conservative nominees, you might appreciate Hatch for what he is unwilling, for the sake of sound governance, to do in the service of ideology.

The Senate doesn't get to choose the president's nominees. Most of Hatch's other confirmation votes which some Utah conservatives find offensive were votes for nominees he believed were the best (in conservative terms) we were likely to see from Democrat presidents -- even if they weren't very good. In none of these cases was Hatch's the deciding vote. Being willing to work with reasonably qualified nominees with whom he disagrees tends to preserve a measure of influence, which he can use in some cases to encourage a Democrat White House to lean a little less to the left in some nominations, or to persuade a Republican president to nominate a solid conservative. It also preserves some political capital for use in select cases where he might be able to push back effectively against a particularly bad nominee.

Just this week there's a report out that Hatch answered diplomatically, not venomously, when asked about the possible nomination of Hillary Clinton to the Supreme Court. The rabid right-wingers heard this and, in their unfortunate inability to distinguish diplomacy and good manners from active endorsement, are now persuaded that Hatch actually wants her on the Court. It's a ludicrous and irresponsible interpretation of Hatch's words. But back to reality . . .

You can't have this appointments conversation with a Hatch opponent without hearing the name of Cass Sunstein, President Obama's Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Ask Orrin Hatch about him, and why he voted for his confirmation, and he'll say -- because I've heard him say, from a range of about three feet -- the following. Cass Sunstein is a crazy, leftist law professor in general, but he's a genuine expert in regulation, having literally written the book on the subject. And he was the least offensive of the likely Obama nominees for that position.

Sometimes in real life, grown-ups, including conservative senators, have to put up with nutty people who are very good at what they do. Sometimes in real life, you take the best you can get, even if he, she, or it isn't very good in some ways, and move on to the next thing. Some right-wing ideologues would doubtless be happier if Hatch had thrown a childish, political tantrum all over the airwaves and the Capitol steps. But he would have forfeited by doing so both the respect of many colleagues in both parties (and a lot of Utah grown-ups who vote), and also any future influence he might have had in the matter of nominations and confirmations.

To a lot of Utah ideologues, intelligent politics is practically treason. To me, it's . . . intelligent politics.

Final, Personal Thought

Occasionally, in the weeks leading up to Saturday's state convention, I've asked delegates who despise Hatch why they don't stick to the real issues in an honest, intelligent reading of his record -- such as the ones I've listed here. There are enough of these to justify voting against Hatch, if that's what they want to do.

I've told you why -- usually in political context -- these matters don't trouble me enough to diminish my support for Orrin Hatch. But if these things (except the Hillary bit, which is absurd) bother you that much, they're great reasons to vote and to campaign against him. You really don't need anything more. 

. . . So why do they feel compelled to pile on the lies and distortions I sampled yesterday? Wouldn't they have a stronger case and more credibility if they were scrupulous about his record? Wouldn't a more conscientious effort at embracing truth be good for the debate and, in the long run, for government? Why is it so unthinkable that someone could think differently without being uninformed, lazy, stupid, or outright evil? This level of intolerance is unworthy of free people and cannot possibly tend to good government.

Some delegates really do stick to the real issues in Hatch's record. I applaud them. Hatch's serious challengers are doing a fairly good job of it, for which I applaud them, too. But some of the delegates and others I ask about this just keep fuming, and throw back at me the same overheated list of offenses, two-thirds of which are demonstrably false.

And not even that's enough. They tell me that if I'd just stop and think, or study the issues and the record and read the Constitution -- wish I'd thought of that! -- and get out of my mind-numbed lockstep with Utah's senior senator, I'd inevitably agree with them. Or they urge me to repent, because I'm clearly on a highway to the infernal realms, because I support Orrin Hatch.

I've spent decades watching Orrin Hatch work. I've listened to him for hours and hours and hours, in person and otherwise. It's fine with me, if you don't like his politics. But I find him to be a gentleman; a genuine, articulate, intelligent conservative; and uncommonly honest, hard-working, and decent, despite being a shrewd politician. I'm honored to be able to vote for him on Saturday, as a state delegate. And I really did -- and do -- thank him for running again.

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