Former Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, who helped shape health and tax policy, dead at 88

Republican led Finance Committee for 2017 overhaul of tax code

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, talks with reporters before  the announcement that Republicans have enough votes to pass an overhaul of the tax code on Dec. 1, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, talks with reporters before the announcement that Republicans have enough votes to pass an overhaul of the tax code on Dec. 1, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 23, 2022 at 9:53pm

Former Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who served in the Senate from 1977 through 2019 and who retired as president pro tempore as the most senior member of his party, died Saturday at age 88.

Hatch was among the most accomplished legislators of his generation, with his last legacy item an overhaul of the tax system when he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Hatch announced he would not seek reelection on Jan. 2, 2018, less than two weeks after then-President Donald Trump signed the tax bill that Hatch helped spearhead.

“When the president visited Utah last month, he said I was a fighter,” Hatch said in a statement announcing his retirement. “I’ve always been a fighter. I was an amateur boxer in my youth, and I brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington. But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching.”

Hatch stepped aside with the hope and expectation that Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential nominee and governor of Massachusetts, would succeed him in the Senate, with the thinking being that Romney’s national profile would help blunt the loss of decades of Senate seniority.

[Orrin Hatch Prepares for His Senate Exit]

Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., Hatch grew up in poverty. His family lost their home during the Great Depression, so Hatch’s father, a lathe operator, borrowed $100 to buy an acre of land in the hills above Pittsburgh, where he built a home of blackened lumber salvaged from a fire. The family grew their own food; Hatch tended to the chickens and sold their eggs.

His family was Mormon and he was the first of his family to attend college. After graduating from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Arts in history in 1959, he went to the University of Pittsburgh where he studied law and graduated in 1962.

Although he was originally a Democrat like his parents, Hatch became a Republican at law school.

“Like most people who had been raised in a union household, I was a Democrat,” Hatch said in his 2002 autobiography, “Square Peg: Confessions of a Citizen Senator.”

“My conversion to the Republican Party would not come until I went to law school.”

He practiced law in Pittsburgh and then in Salt Lake City, Utah, before he decided to run for Senate in 1976 against three-term incumbent Democrat Frank Moss.

The upstart Hatch, who had no legislative experience, won the GOP nomination and defeated Moss, winning 54 percent of the vote, with his campaign stressing that Moss was out of touch with Utah.

Once in the Senate, Hatch championed a variety of issues including a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, which he sponsored 17 times; immigration and border security; religious freedom; and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he also played leading roles in passing landmark laws related to national security and health care, including teaming with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to create the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for children living in or near poverty as part of a larger 1997 budget law.

While he was a steadfast Republican, particularly on social issues, that didn’t stop him from forming close working and personal relationships with Democrats, including Kennedy, with whom he was quite close.

“Working with the other side is not only politically necessary, but actually beneficial for everyone,” Hatch said in his autobiography.

In 2000, he ran for president, but dropped out of the race after winning only 1 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.

Then-Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was his ally in preparing a 1994 law that limited the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to withdraw dietary supplements from stores (supplements are a huge industry in Utah). A 1984 law credited with making generic medicines more widely available is named for its champions, Hatch and Democratic California Rep. Henry A. Waxman.

He was reelected in 2012 after a difficult challenge from the tea party, which charged Hatch with being out of touch. After seeing three-term Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett denied the GOP Senate nomination in 2010 when conservatives at the party’s nominating convention lined up behind two challengers, Hatch had two years to prepare for a similar battle. He tacked to the right on most issues, established ties to the tea party movement and engaged in aggressive fundraising. 

He publicly apologized to conservative groups for some past stances, such as support for a $700 billion rescue package for the financial sector in 2008. He also played down his willingness to work across the aisle.

Hatch is survived by his wife, Elaine, and their six children. Details regarding funeral arrangements will be forthcoming.