Why the RSC’s Paul Teller probably had to go

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I don’t know Paul Teller well. He and I were both bestowed the honor of the Young Conservative Leadership Buckley Award, and I think we chatted briefly during the ceremony. That’s about the extent of it. One thing I do know, however, is that he is certainly beloved by conservatives, which is why news that he was fired by Republican Study Committee chairman Rep. Steve Scalise will only reinforce the latest round of the conservative vs. establishment schism that started last night when Rep. Paul Ryan’s bipartisan budget deal was announced.

But having said that, it’s hard to fault the RSC for firing him (or for seeking his resignation). He was reportedly working with outside groups to undermine the Ryan-Murray budget deal — a deal I don’t like, either (but then again, I don’t work for Members of Congress — some of whom do support it.)

Conservative Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Teller’s former boss at the RSC, doesn’t like the budget deal any more than I do. But according to the Washington Post, “Jordan called Teller a ‘good guy’ but said that his firing was justified. ‘I completely support the chairman,’ he said of Scalise’s move. Scalise sought and received the support of all the former chairmen of the powerful caucus in pushing Teller out.”

That’s a pretty tough indictment. And here’s why I think he is siding with the establishment in this instance. In terms of protocol, staffers serve at the pleasure of members (in this case, dues-paying members who pay part of Teller’s salary). If this seems hierarchical, it’s important to remember that staffers aren’t elected. What is more, the unspoken assumption is that staffers ought to demonstrate loyalty to the people for whom they work. In this sense, they should sort of be like a lawyer. Confidentiality is key.

Nobody wants to play second fiddle, and sometimes, staffers come to believe they are as important as the principal (and, in truth, they often are more knowledgeable.) In the case of an executive director who precedes (and succeeds) a couple of chairmen, it’s easy to see how one could build a sort of permanent power base. Chairmen come and go, after all, but if the staffers are permanent, who’s really in charge? (This is especially true when the chairman has another gig keeping him busy — like being a Member of Congress.)

Occasionally, staffers may even leverage their position to become an independent and unaccountable power broker whose ring must be kissed by others. Was that the case here? As Politico noted, “If there was any staffer on Capitol Hill that was nearly as powerful as a member of Congress, it was Teller.”

It’s understandable that conservatives will see this as yet another blow. But in the world of social media, it’s worth asking: does the RSC even matter anymore? You still have a group of conservatives undermining bad bills — they just aren’t doing it under the umbrella of the RSC.

Teller had a good run at the RSC, but perhaps he would be better-suited at a conservative outside group. Sometimes we need a little nudge to get us to move on to greener pastures (I’ve been there.) Maybe he will look back at this one day as having been a good thing. As one Republican staffer told me, “Teller should have bailed a long time ago.  A martyr he may be — but a tone deaf one. “