Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas likes to present himself as a deficit hawk—a red-state conservative who “believes that Congress must be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money,” as his official website declares, and that “fiscal responsibility is the cornerstone for good governance.”
So the revelation in the National Journal that the 61-year-old Cornyn is collecting three different state-government pensions while receiving his federal salary as a senator (a total of $239,383 in taxpayer-funded largesse) is slightly off-message, and just a tad inconvenient, as he gets ready to run for a third term next year.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy there,” says Tea Party pundit Erick Erickson, proprietor of the influential RedState.com blog. “I think John Cornyn is a good guy. He didn’t create the pensions model, and there’s nothing wrong with getting multiple pensions. But this is the next front for conservatives: they need to pick a fight with government pensions. And it becomes very hard for people like John Cornyn to pick that fight when he’s benefiting so well from them.”
Along with the financial exploits of putative conservative Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife—who sent Virginia state employees on personal errands for their adult children; charged taxpayers for such expenses as sunscreen, dog vitamins, and a “detox cleanse”; and are under FBI and grand jury investigation for allegedly accepting a campaign donor’s improper $15,000 catering payment for their daughter’s wedding—the triple-dipping Texan is yet another challenge to the Republican brand. They’re the reputational equivalent (as anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist would put it) of “a rat head in a Coke bottle.”
But Erickson says an elite culture of entitlement has long infected politicians of both parties—so it’s undoubtedly unfair to single out Cornyn and McDonnell for special opprobrium; McDonnell, for one, isn’t running for reelection. However, Cornyn (whose spokeswoman didn’t return a call seeking comment) has already drawn a primary opponent, a Tea Partier and Iraq War veteran who might make effective use of the pension imbroglio.
“It’s the one area that the Tea Party groups and the Occupy groups can agree on,” Erickson says. “Politicians tend to create an aristocracy for themselves. The two groups have different ideas on how to deal with the problem, and their solutions are very different, but Republicans and Democrats both are cutting checks to their favorite groups, and sometimes their favorite groups are themselves.”
Cornyn’s state-funded pensions—the accumulated retirement benefits from his previous posts as a district judge, a state Supreme Court justice, and Texas attorney general—are certainly generous, but not as lavish as those of his fellow Texan, Gov. Rick Perry, who raised eyebrows during his brief, “oops”-plagued 2012 presidential campaign when it was revealed that he's taking advantage of a law that permits him to pocket a $92,376 annual early pension while continuing to cash his $150,000 salary check. In other words, he’s accepting retirement benefits for a job he continues to hold.
“Unfortunately, until now, the people haven’t paid attention to these laws that have passed. But what do you want Cornyn to do? Give back the money?”
Pension expert Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, calls these and other arrangements one of the “odd incentives built into most public-sector DB [defined benefit] pensions.” Another consequence is double (or, in Cornyn’s case, triple) dipping. “Once you reach around age 55,” Biggs emails, “the amount you contribute each year [usually around 6 percent of pay] is greater than the additional pension benefits you earn in that year. [Cornyn was 50 when he first ran for Senate.] As a result, retirements spike at around that time, since it doesn’t really make sense to work much longer. But often those retired employees will get another job, so in effect they’re claiming retirement from one job while working another. In some cases this may be morally dubious—for instance, a person will retire from one job and move into an almost identical job in the same office.”
While Biggs believes the double-dipping incentive is bad public policy, the massive disparity between public and private retirement packages is even more alarming. “The benefits,” he emails, “are much more generous for government employees ... and on average the retirement package for state government employees—meaning pensions and retiree health benefits—is around seven times [italics added] more generous than for similar workers employed in larger private-sector companies.” Stating the obvious, Biggs adds that this is “a pretty big deal, given how stretched government budgets are.”
Lavish retirement packages would seem a more serious political problem for budget-cutting Republicans than for free-spending Democrats, who, after all, are usually out and proud about bringing home the bacon. “You would think it would be off-brand,” Tanene Allison, communications director of the Texas Democratic Party, says about Cornyn’s good fortune. “But it seems to be par for the course for Republican leaders in Texas, despite their rhetoric about being fiscally conservative. How ironic. Democrats have not made cutting government spending part of their main philosophy.”
Cornyn, who is hardly a Tea Party favorite, will be under further pressure to tack to the right, while enjoying the fruits of state-sponsored socialism, by his flashy junior colleague Ted Cruz—who is, for the moment anyway, a Tea Party hero.
“Real people can agree that there is something messed up with Washington—Washington does not live in the real world,” says Scottie Nell Hughes, news director of the Tea Party News Network. “In Cornyn’s case, what he’s getting is completely legal, and he’s earned it. Unfortunately, until now, the people haven’t paid attention to these laws that have passed ... But what do you want Cornyn to do? Give back the money?”
Certainly that isn’t the wish of the Beltway brain trust. Scholar Stephen Hess of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution defends Cornyn’s multiple pensions, saying the senator deserves the benefits he clearly worked to obtain (while taking relatively low-paying public-service jobs instead of joining a blue-chip law firm). But Hess does call McDonnell’s conduct “tacky and shabby.”
Meanwhile, a senior staffer for a conservative Washington think tank scolded: “Aren’t there more important stories out there?” The staffer added: “I personally like John Cornyn. Nobody here is going to talk to you. Everybody double-dips in Washington.”