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.
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.
That’s OK, said Teller: “If everybody expected 100 percent total victory every day and based their mood on that, we’d all be in mental institutions,” he said. “You have to look at the bright side and use that bright side to strengthen yourself for the next battle.”
The coming battles include the so-called “fiscal cliff”—mandatory spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect Jan. 1—which could include discussions on entitlement reform, and another debt ceiling skirmish that has been largely overshadowed. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says the federal government can keep afloat into early 2013, but it may bump into its borrowing limit before the fiscal cliff arrives, and House Speaker John Boehner has promised another showdown. “There’s a lot left to do,” Teller said. “Liberty is eroding in this country.”
Meanwhile Teller, whose cheerful optimism earns him the nickname “happy warrior,” is trying to talk other conservatives off the ledge: “There are some legitimate positives,” he said. “We lost some very important conservatives ... but by and large the members that lost were a little less conservative.”
Teller’s allegiance to conservative standards—he said President George W. Bush didn’t meet the standard —has won him plenty of friends but made some enemies, too. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who met Teller when the two were working on doctorates at American University, told me Teller is a man of integrity, but some people still don’t like him: “They don’t dislike him personally, they dislike how effective he is,” he said.
Huelskamp said Teller’s role is critical: Most conservative issues considered in the House come out of the RSC, and getting those into law is difficult with a Democrat-controlled Senate. The RSC is largely responsible for framing the debate and keeping issues in the public eye.
During the debt ceiling debate last year, the RSC worked against the Budget Control Act of 2011 negotiated by Boehner—because Teller, RSC Chairman Jim Jordan, and other conservatives felt it didn’t go far enough to balance the budget and trim the national debt. “We just didn’t like this particular legislative proposal,” said Teller, and the RSC wasn’t afraid to oppose its own party. After an RSC staffer lobbied outside groups against its own members, and someone leaked a Teller email assessing the mood in a closed-door meeting, a dozen members ended up leaving the caucus.
The RSC pressure helped convince Huelskamp and 65 other Republicans to vote against the bill, but the maneuvering among Republicans also highlighted a divided party. And it strengthened Teller’s position with conservatives: Seven months later, he was named Capitol Hill Staffer of the Year at the 2012 Weyrich Awards Dinner.
Following the GOP’s Nov. 6 losses, change is in the Washington air as Republicans evaluate the direction of the party. Price lost his bid to attain the GOP’s No. 4 leadership position, and Steve Scalise, R-La., won the Nov. 15 RSC leadership election. The 47-year-old pro-life Catholic and Tea Party member will face a divide between those who believe the caucus has grown too large with too many moderates, and those who don’t like the push toward more conservative policies.
Teller told me he believes conservatives need to keep doing most of what they’ve been doing, but with improved messaging to groups that didn’t vote Republican—such as Hispanics. “We need to go to the people where they are. We need to meet people, build coalitions, go where they work, go where they pray, and connect with human beings.”
Decisions to retain RSC staff should happen before year’s end, but regardless of the outcome, Teller says, “Our ideas are bigger than any election. They live on regardless of who wins whatever office.”
Some speculate on Teller’s future as a political candidate, but he told me a run for office is unlikely. He placed the odds “around 3” on a 1-to-10 scale, noting he lives in a liberal area of Maryland with his wife and two kids, and he’s not enticed by the “grueling” job of a lawmaker. For now, he has no plans to quit trying to “throw a monkey wrench into the gears of liberalism,” because “the gears are still churning really, really hard.”