As partisan polarization proliferates in the nation’s capital, Sen. John Cornyn appears to have found a way to cut through the rancor.
The senior Texas Republican marshaled eight bills into law over the past two years, more than any other member of the Senate.
He did so despite a slowdown in overall Senate productivity and despite filing fewer bills than dozens of his fellow lawmakers. The Senate passed just 29 percent of House bills sent to the chamber, according to a report by Quorum Analytics, the lowest percentage in 25 years.
Cornyn’s haul included bills that increase transparency in federal agencies, use public-private partnerships to boost border security infrastructure, crack down on human trafficking and expand funding for active-shooter training for first responders.
Though Cornyn’s position as the second-most-powerful senator gives him a leg up, congressional records show that previous majority whips have rarely translated their high-ranking positions into personal legislative success. At least as far back as 1973, no majority whip has sponsored the most bills that became law in a session.
“Being the second-ranking person helps a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to getting things done if you don’t have the trust of both Republicans and Democrats,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who worked with Cornyn on a border security enhancement bill.
Though Cornyn’s bills are more substantive than post office namings — the oft-mocked legislation that lets members pad their stats — none of them are sweeping, comprehensive overhauls of existing law. But to hear the Texas senator tell it, that’s the result of a deliberate legislative philosophy developed over his 14 years on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve come to realize that Congress doesn’t do comprehensive bills very well,” Cornyn said, explaining that so many controversial provisions get tacked onto such bills that everyone can find a reason to oppose them. “So what I’ve done is to move more to a step-by-step approach.”
Cornyn’s allies in Washington highlight his openness to working with anyone, no matter their partisan leanings, as a central factor in his productivity.
When an unusually large batch of new Texas Democrats arrived in Congress in 2013, Cornyn invited the group to lunch, according to Cuellar. Cornyn then went down the line and asked each of them what their three most important policy issues were, looking for any areas where he might be able to work with them.
“There are people that are more interested in just throwing bombs and not very interested in getting the job done,” Cuellar said. “I might disagree on policy issues, but he is not the type that breaks down and tears down relationships, because he understands that today we might disagree, but tomorrow there might be another thing that we work on together.”
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, describes Cornyn as “the Tim Duncan of the Senate” because of his willingness to assist other members in getting legislation through and then go out of his way to make sure they receive credit.
“He’s really focused on helping others and making others better,” Hurd said.
Despite Cornyn’s high-profile role and lengthy career in public service, it remains unclear how directly his legislative victories translate into public support back home.
A Morning Consult poll in January measuring each senator’s approval in their home state found that 33 percent of respondents didn’t know Cornyn or had no opinion of him, the second-highest such figure in the Senate. By contrast, just 14 percent said they had no opinion of Sen. Ted Cruz, who at the time was in the midst of his presidential campaign.
“It’s kind of amazing as powerful and significant as his role is how little attention he gets for it, and part of that is just because of the way he operates,” said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based GOP consultant. Polls have also shown Cornyn to be among the least-popular Republicans in Texas with far-right tea party voters.
“Being in the establishment is a double-edged sword,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “You are able to get things done, but you’re also constantly under fire from the Republican groups who want to find somebody who’s going to shake up Washington.”
Cornyn’s role as “the steady hand on the reins” rarely attracts attention, Rottinghaus said, but it is also what allows him to make friends on Capitol Hill. And though Cornyn may not get the credit, Rottinghaus argues that Texas Republicans are generally still satisfied with their representation in Washington.
“Even if they don’t know who the chef is, the meal tastes good,” he said.
Hurd cites his own re-election as evidence that voters do care about how much work members get done on Capitol Hill. After focusing his campaign on the legislative achievements of his first two years in Congress and mostly avoiding hot-button issues, Hurd became the first congressman from the state’s competitive 23rd District to secure a second consecutive term since 2008.
“When things actually get done, it’s not a sexy news story. Dysfunction and partisan bickering gets more coverage and focus,” he said. “But when there are folks that put their heads down and work hard, they get rewarded.”
Cornyn still has four years until his next election, if he chooses to run for a fourth term. But for now, he says he’s just looking ahead to the next session in what is set to be a hectic few months in Congress under the new Donald Trump presidency.
“When I came to Washington, I thought my job was to give fiery speeches on the floor of the Senate and then to vote no on everything — and truthfully, in a red state with a Democratic president, you might be able to do that,” Cornyn said. “But in the end, if you’re in the majority, you have a responsibility to say something other than no to everything. You have a responsibility to govern.”