Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Wild Pitches, Backstops and Orrin Hatch

By Bob Ferris

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) 
During my time working in the DC area, one of the activities that I occasionally enjoyed was meeting with delegations or citizens from other countries to talk about successful American advocacy and social change methods and how these approaches could be adopted or adapted for use in other countries or not.  I always found value in these discussions as they helped remind me—in spite of challenges and craziness—of the elegant and robust nature of our system of governance.

Of these sessions I remember three most vividly.  The first I did as a favor for a major donor who worked at the State Department and it started as a “short” discussion of how wolves and brown bears could be managed in the newly independent Croatia.  But as each suggestion seemed to be linked to an agency or cornerstone piece of legislation, the discussion quickly ended up being longer and more a primer on natural resource policy, administration and governance.

The second one that stands out was with a Chinese citizen who was working to save giant pandas.  He wanted to know how we—I was at Defenders of Wildlife at the time—were so successful in restoring wolves and if some of those strategies could be used for his pandas.  My heart went out to him because as I rolled out each tool we used they were either missing or associated with dire consequences for the user in China.  I could offer him little, but kind wishes for his citizen-driven efforts.

The third instance, gets to the meat of what I want to deal with in this blog and it was with a formal delegation from Japan while I was at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—complete with bowing, gifts and an interpreter.  The first portion of the discussion was pretty awkward as the delegates would give long statements or questions that seemed so out of synch with the short translations I was receiving.  I could not help but think then that either Japanese was an extremely inefficient language or that the interpreter was screening quite a bit.

The break-through happened when one of the delegates who was trying to reconcile state functions with federal functions asked the basic question: What is the role of the federal government?  I scratched my chin a little in thought and said: The federal government acts like the backstop in a baseball game preventing wild pitches from going too far when the catcher misses.  The second I said the word “baseball” the formerly dour delegation to a person lit up and they started asking their own questions and helping each other with English words they did not understand.   It was chaos, but productive for all parties.

It took me a long time in this piece to get to this idea of a federal “backstop” protecting us from errant wild pitches and some writer friends of mine would call it poor organization to arrive at one of your main points in the fifth paragraph.  But the build-up and delay is actually part of the point as the catalyst for this piece was Orrin Hatch’s op-ed on the separation of Church and State in the conservative Washington Times where he argues that some select pre-Constitutional sentiments are evidence of his own view on post-Constitution reality vis a vis the Separation of Church and State.  My counter to that would be that the US Constitution and its “backstop” function—that simultaneously protects religion while protecting us from religion along with other functions—evolved during a long and tortuous debate where many set aside strongly held personal beliefs in order to “form a more perfect union.”

It is interesting that Senator Hatch relies heavily on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in his piece, because they both help and hurt his argument.  Jefferson’s religious beliefs were eclectic to say the least being a Deist who owned a Koran he generally espoused religious tolerance and curiosity as well as famously re-writing parts of the Bible so it was more moral lesson and less hocus pocus.   Adams too, as Hatch points out, had strong religious beliefs but as President, he along with Congress signed a treaty with Tripoli (see Article 11) that said that we are in no way a Christian nation.  So Adams could clearly see that his personal beliefs were indeed separate from his duties as President and as leader of a country governed by a Constitution.
"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." American Poet John Godfrey Saxe 
Senator Hatch has also been in Washington a long, long time and has deeply participated in the legislative “sausage making” allowed by the rules of governance embodied by the US Constitution. Because of that he should be fully aware that draft legislation is more a statement of personal beliefs that is then subject to committees, hearings, floor debates, amendments, and ultimately the bizarre process of conferencing which produces a product that is often very unlike what was originally proposed but hopefully is something that works best for the country and is also consistent with the Constitution.  It seems faulty logic at best to think that the process and philosophy that produced the legislation should be a fundamental departure from how the US Constitution came to be—a document not driven primarily by disparate and often conflicting personal beliefs but rather a thoughtful compromise that accommodates and protects most as well as the few.
Lots of room for modification in the system (see narrative).  
In closing, I find it perhaps ironic that Senator Hatch who is a Mormon not born in Utah does not get the value of the above separation from and absence of religious favoritism (albeit not always perfect) at the state or federal levels.  He asks us to look at history, but seems to forget that his own religion did not even exist until thirty-one years after the US Constitution was ratified and was, therefore, a beneficiary of this separation.  Given his beliefs and cultural history he should be sensitized both to the harm of intolerance through atrocities done to the Mormons during their origins and westward migration as well as the impact of their own institutional intolerance on others exemplified by the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  His own experience should inform him too as he has helped those of other religions come to or stay in this country and built mosques that met resistance that if institutionalized would have prevented these actions.  Even if Senator Hatch cannot sort through the lessons of history we should and must.

1 comment:

  1. Very good piece, Bob!

    I like your federal backstop idea. I think it fits with the church/state separation, and I think it also fits with the resource exploitation circumstances. All too often local, even state governments are all too ready to compromise their own natural resources, or as I prefer, their own natural systems.

    (Now putting multinational corporations aside for a minute)

    There is much wealth to be had locally from exploitation of trees and water and rock through timber, industry, mining, etc. People are very susceptible to the lure of jobs and prosperity locally, and our time horison is short in appreciation of this. This is the danger of local control.

    The federal governments and international bodies provide such a backstop for the wild pitches that local, state, and national governments (now with multinational corporations) throw for the sake of short-term prosperity. These more distant bodies should provide a broader perspective, a more objective appreciation of the scope of local systems than can be obtained locally when county commssioners or the like feel compelled to make their neighbors rich (usually just a few) at the expense of the many later in time.