Orrin Hatch, 1934-2022

The longest-serving Republican Senator has died at the age of 88.

Washington Post, “Orrin G. Hatch, longest-serving Republican in Senate history, dies at 88

Orrin G. Hatch, a conservative Utah Republican who came out of political nowhere to win a U.S. Senate seat in 1976 and ended his career 42 years later as the longest-serving Republican in the chamber’s history and one of his party’s most influential lawmakers of recent decades, died April 23 in Salt Lake City. He was 88.


Tall and slim in build and impeccable in dress, Mr. Hatch had a gentlemanly demeanor but behind it wielded strong views, high energy and a love for legislative give-and-take that made him a force on Capitol Hill.

When he retired in 2019, at the end of his seventh term, he chaired the powerful tax-writing Finance Committee and by virtue of his seniority was Senate president pro tempore. By the end of his tenure, Mr. Hatch had sponsored or co-sponsored 790 pieces of legislation that became law, more than any other senator in office at the time, according to Library of Congress data. He achieved that record in part through his willingness to work with liberal Democrats.

“He was a tough partisan, a solid conservative, but he could make strategic alliances to get legislation passed,” former Senate historian Donald Ritchie said in an interview. “No one questioned his ideology, so he could deal. People on his side of the aisle trusted him, and people on the other side respected him.”

His most productive collaboration was with Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, his political polar opposite. “One of the reasons I ran for the Senate was to fight Ted Kennedy, who embodied everything I felt was wrong with Washington,” Mr. Hatch wrote in a Newsweek commentary shortly after Kennedy’s death in 2009.

Kennedy was an established Senate force when the Utah firebrand crashed onto the national scene, itching to balance the budget, overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, bury the Equal Rights Amendment and otherwise steer the ship of state rightward. He was “an aggressive, ambitious man who, as much as anything, resembles a minister making his rounds,” a reporter for the New York Times wrote of Mr. Hatch in his first term.

In only his second year in the Senate, Mr. Hatch joined another GOP freshman, Richard Lugar of Indiana, in filibustering a major Democratic-backed labor bill that would have eased barriers to union organizing and, according to Mr. Hatch, led the country “straight to socialism.” After six unsuccessful cloture votes to break the filibuster, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) surrendered.

Mr. Hatch, a strait-laced former Mormon bishop who grew up in a working-class Pittsburgh family, could scarcely have been more different from Kennedy, a fun-loving scion of East Coast political royalty. To the surprise of both, they found common ground in their efforts to improve health care and social services.

Their best-known collaboration was the 1997 legislation creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provided states with matching grants to cover uninsured children in working-poor families. The program, the largest expansion of taxpayer-funded health insurance for children since the creation of Medicaid in 1965, was instrumental in cutting the percentage of uninsured children by more than half.

The two senators also collaborated on the 1990 Ryan White act, which funded care for uninsured and underinsured patients with HIV/AIDS. And Mr. Hatch worked closely with Kennedy and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, the chief sponsor, to pass the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act prohibiting discrimination against — and requiring accommodations for — people with disabilities.

One factor in Mr. Hatch’s transition from ideologue to pragmatist was the 1980 election, which shifted Senate control to the GOP and gave him the chairmanship of the Labor and Human Resources Committee — and with it responsibility for health-related legislation. He partnered with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House health subcommittee, to accelerate the approval process for lower-cost generic drugs. The 1984 law, known as the Hatch-Waxman Act, is credited with significantly increasing consumers’ access to generics.

New York Times, “Orrin Hatch, Seven-Term Senator and a Republican Force, Dies at 88

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who crusaded for conservative causes and outlasted six presidents in a seven-term Senate career that corresponded to the rise of a right-wing movement in America, died on Saturday in Salt Lake City. He was 88.


Born into poverty in the Great Depression, one of nine children of a Pittsburgh metal worker, Mr. Hatch, who briefly aspired to the presidency and to a seat on the Supreme Court, had a grim Dickensian childhood. He went to school in bib overalls, lost siblings in infancy and in World War II, and grew up in a crowded, ramshackle house without indoor plumbing.

In law school, he, his wife and children lived in a chicken coop that he and his father rebuilt behind his parents’ home.

“We turned it into a tiny two-room bungalow, with a toilet and small stove, that we nicknamed ‘the cottage,’ a description that would have made even the most aggressive real estate agent cringe,” he said in a memoir, “Square Peg: Confessions of a Citizen Senator” (2002).

But in the Senate, as in his early life, he was a fighter. Through shrewd political instincts and a fine-tuned sense of the national mood moving to the right, he became a powerful Washington political force, advising seven presidents, shaping some 12,000 pieces of legislation as a sponsor or co-sponsor, and helping to build and hold a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for years.

In a 42-year tenure that began weeks before Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 and ended as his last term drew to a close in early 2019, Mr. Hatch was one of the Senate’s best-known leaders, as familiar to many Americans as anyone on Capitol Hill. He conferred at the White House with Presidents Carter, Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, and voted to confirm 10 justices of the Supreme Court.

He was the longest-serving Republican and the sixth longest-serving senator in the history of the Senate, a singular achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that, aside from a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, it was the only office he had ever sought. He was elected to the Senate in 1976 on his first try and re-elected six times by overwhelming margins. To make an orderly parting transition, he had announced nearly a year in advance that he would not seek an eighth term.

I started paying attention to politics seriously with the Iran Hostage Crisis and the 1980 presidential election, so Hatch seems to have been around forever. He was certainly an ideologue, although perhaps not more so than one might expect of a Mormon bishop born at the start of the Great Depression.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    RIP Orrin Hatch.

    To think there are at least 2 senators, older than Hatch, who are planning on running for reelection.