Sen. Cornyn’s casting call

Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) has gotten seriously off track, and people are starting to notice.

With his prematurely white hair, distinguished looks and gentlemanly Southern charm, if the voters in Texas hadn’t picked him to be their real-life senator in 2002, Central Casting would have discovered him and put him in a major motion picture playing exactly the same role on the big screen.

Fade in: An honest-to-goodness, staunchly right-wing, flag pin-wearing, Southern conservative judge/attorney general comes to Washington as one of the early shock troops for his home-state governor, who was elected president in a controversial election two years before.

A strong defender of his embattled friend’s unpopular war, and his go-to guy when the president wants more like-minded conservatives on the bench, the rookie senator hunkers down, embeds himself in the culture of the staid Senate, and becomes a predictable, solid, Republican vote whenever needed.

But then the script starts going seriously astray.  

Soon the new senator’s political enemies not only start saying nice things about him, but they even begin co-sponsoring some of his legislation. Whispers and hushed words spread like wildfire, and before long the backsliding Republican is teaming up with the poster boy of the left, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), to regulate tobacco.  

The fall from grace continues as he conspires on human rights issues with the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin (Ill.), in an effort to stop investment in Darfur.  

Then matters turn irreversibly worse when the prodigal Republican son hooks up with an out-of-control, Batman-impersonating liberal Vermont Democrat to do a major re-work of the Freedom of Information Act.

“Cut, Cut, Cut! This script isn’t working. Let’s come back after lunch.”

Whether a half-baked script or not, Cornyn, although truly that same reliable, shock-troop Republican, if not breaking the mold outright, is seriously reshaping it and preventing himself from being typecast in the real-life feature titled “George Bush’s Washington.”

Cornyn’s latest episode comes in the form of S. 2852 — The Federal Spending and Taxpayer Accessibility Act of 2008.
Specifically, S. 2852 would create an online earmark tracking system that taxpayers can use to search for earmarks in their state, or anywhere else for that matter.

The database, to be operated by the Congressional Research Service, would be free to the public, who could search it by recipient of the earmark, appropriations bill where the earmark resides, where the money is going, or the member making the request.

The coup de grâce for reporters and citizens is Cornyn’s hope to have all that information on the Web during the appropriations process, so that folks can follow the money flow in real time.

Cornyn is convinced that this opening of the appropriations window would, by itself, discourage phony earmarks and create a healthier debate about the ones with merit.

Another interesting component of the bill would be to direct the IRS to provide each taxpayer with a concise, easy-to-read personal record of the amount of taxes they have paid and an estimate of the amount they can anticipate paying before they retire. The statement would mirror the future benefits statement sent out by the Social Security Administration. S. 2852 would also expand the accessible Office of Management and Budget database dealing with federal contracts and grants.

According to Cornyn, the bill is designed to provide more transparency, openness and accessibility to information about money sent to Washington, and how it is spent.

Cornyn, who was an undergraduate journalism major before studying law, developed a reputation as a reformer when he was a judge in Texas at a time when some justices accepted campaign contributions in their courtrooms.

As far as I can tell, he believes that not only does he work for the American people, but that they have a right to information about how their government works, and especially to decisions about how their money is spent.  

During a floor speech on the day the bill was introduced, Cornyn said: “I fundamentally believe the more the American people and my constituents in Texas understand about the government and how it operates, the better accountability can take place, and people will once again feel they are in charge, which is absolutely the case.”

I don’t expect Cornyn is the most popular guy at the prestigious We-Know-Best-and-Besides-It’s-None-of-Your-Business Appropriations Club, and I doubt the bill will pick up many co-sponsors, wearing Batman tights or not.  

But Cornyn should be commended for at least trying to hold on to that quaint “of the people, by the people, for the people” phrase that some little-noted Republican politician uttered somewhere up the road in Pennsylvania a long time ago.

Jim Mills can be reached at