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BLEEDS RSC: Teller in his Capitol Hill office.
Lee Love/Genesis
BLEEDS RSC: Teller in his Capitol Hill office.

Conservative insider

Politics | Paul Teller directs the Republican Study Committee at a pivotal post-election time

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

House Republicans will be down eight seats when the 113th Congress swears in lawmakers on Jan. 7. The staunch conservatives missing in action will include Florida’s Allen West and Illinois’ Joe Walsh, two vocal freshmen whom Democrats successfully targeted for elimination.

Yet even as overall GOP numbers took a hit on Election Day, some would argue the conservative voice in Congress has never been stronger. The Republican Study Committee (RSC), the party’s conservative arm, will seat more members in the 113th Congress than it had at the end of the 112th, and that number is expected to inch upward. Once the new members get settled in, they’ll meet Paul Teller. 

Teller is the executive director of the RSC and the linchpin to the largest, most influential caucus in Washington. That makes him one of the most influential staffers on Capitol Hill, playing a critical role for the conservative movement, even though the average voter has probably never heard Teller’s name. 

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Voters will be familiar with his work: Pick almost any conservative policy issue and Teller is in the middle of it, ranging from pro-Israel policy to a conservative healthcare solution to last year’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation. 

Teller, 41, has been at the RSC for nearly 12 years—an eternity for a Capitol Hill staffer—and during that time the caucus has more than tripled in size to 167 members. “I love the RSC,” he told me. “Cut my arm and you’ll see little R’s, little S’s, and little C’s come out.” 

Despite his affection for the caucus, Teller has shown he’s more committed to principles than politics—and it’s gotten him in trouble more than once. 

Teller was raised on Long Island by mostly liberal Jewish parents. Teller’s mother, whom he calls a “Jesse Jackson liberal,” helped shape his beliefs, but not always the way she planned: When she taught him all races should be treated equally, he concluded affirmative action was wrong. When she taught him to consider how policies hurt the average person, he concluded the welfare state was hurting the poor and needed reform. “Some of her stuff, put through a new filter, came out conservative,” he said. 

When Teller was in the seventh grade, his teacher gave students a list of political issues and had them write down their views. Based on the results, the teacher divided students into five groups: radical, liberal, moderate, conservative, and reactionary. Teller was one of six labeled reactionary. “I was fringe from the beginning,” he says, laughing.

Teller, who describes himself as a mildly practicing Jew, attributes his conservatism to Ronald Reagan and “lots of reasoning by a young man concerned by the liberal views on such issues as crime, education, and foreign policy” in the 1980s. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Duke University and a doctorate at American University in the 1990s. 

During that time he says he quashed his only remaining liberalism, saying he was pro-abortion out of a “warped view of conservatism” (“If welfare moms want to abort their kids, let them”). He became pro-life after hearing an American Life League speaker talk about “miniature babies” discarded behind abortion mills.

Teller arrived on Capitol Hill in 1999 and moved to the RSC in 2001. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the RSC chairman in 2009-10, said it was a “no-brainer” in 2009 to move Teller into the RSC’s top job, overseeing its 10-person staff. “He has huge respect in the conservative movement,” Price told me. “He’s working to move things forward, no matter who gets credit or who does the work.”

When President Barack Obama pushed the Affordable Care Act in 2009, Price, a physician, said the president often promised to listen to anyone with a good healthcare idea. So Teller drafted a letter on Price’s behalf to Obama accepting a seat at the negotiating table. He sent it to Obama every week (or every time the president repeated his mantra) for more than a year. Teller was the point man for creating the “Empowering Patients First Act,” conservatives’ comprehensive alternative to Obamacare, but the president never considered it. 

Last year, as the federal government’s borrowing power reached its limit, Teller surveyed RSC members to see what they might negotiate in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Three themes emerged: Cut spending, cap spending, and pass a balanced budget amendment to avoid a Greece-like debt crisis. 

Teller took the lead in crafting “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation, which the House passed and made a major part of the debt-ceiling negotiations, even though the Democrat-controlled Senate immediately tabled the bill. 

Editor's note: After this issue of WORLD went to press, the Republican Study Committee confirmed Paul Teller would return as executive director for the 113th Congress.

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