It’s a testament to how powerful the fired executive director of the Republican Study Committee, Paul Teller, was that it took a lobbying campaign by his boss, Representative Steve Scalise, to fire his own aide.
This is highly unusual. Congress is the kind of place where staff members who end up on the wrong side of their lawmaker bosses — or the news cycle — tend to be dropped like a sack of potatoes. In February, Representative Raul Labrador fired his longtime spokesman for accidentally tweeting a joke from the congressman’s official account. The errant tweet was online for 14 seconds. In another electronic mishap in 2009, a Virginia Foxx aide noted she was drinking a beer in the office during a congressional recess on her private gchat away message. As soon as the away message hit Politico, she was gone. In 2000, one press secretary desperate to avoid bad press from then–Roll Call gossip columnist Ed Henry offered Henry a nice bottle of wine as an “incentive” not to run a story. Henry snapped a photo of the bottle, returned the wine, and ran the photo and the story. The guy was canned in just over a nanosecond.
But different rules applied in the case of Teller. In preparing to fire him, Scalise put together a dossier of the evidence against him. Then he methodically walked a group of influential conservative members through the evidence, asking them for input.
“I told him I thought Paul had to go,” recounts Representative Mick Mulvaney, a sophomore lawmaker with sterling credentials as a conservative bomb-thrower. “One hundred percent. Without hesitation. Every single former chairman with whom I’ve spoken . . . says the same thing. That it was not even open for discussion,” he says.
Several sources familiar with the matter say Teller’s fateful final act as executive director was whipping the conservative outside groups against Representative Paul Ryan’s budget deal before the details of the deal had been announced or the RSC had taken a position.
But the tension had been building for a long time. Scalise and other members chafed when the outside groups kept getting wind of what had happened at private meetings. “They would know just who to push,” recalls a member who supported Teller’s ouster.
Perhaps in part for that reason, the outside groups have quickly come to Teller’s aid.
“Paul Teller is a great American, an ally in the fight for economic freedom. The Club staff has enjoyed an excellent working relationship with him. Anybody in Washington would be lucky to have someone with his breadth and depth of knowledge working for them. We expect that he’ll land on his feet in no time,” says Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller.
Teller has loyal allies all over town and across the country who since the firing have blown up his Facebook page with well wishes. Even his fiercest critics concede he’s a really nice guy, someone fun to be around, and smart.
The outside groups, meanwhile, have an increasingly dim view of Scalise, whom they see essentially as a leadership stooge. There is frequent chatter about how the RSC may be too big, with too many moderate members, and how a smaller group of hard-core conservatives would be more effective.
The Louisiana Republican came into the chairmanship under what Mulvaney calls a “cloud” of suspicion amid rumors that Boehner aides had lobbied RSC members to back Scalise over Tom Graves, his opponent in the election for the chairmanship.
Though there are pockets of criticism in Congress — “There’s been some disappointment that RSC has become more responsive to what leadership wants than what our membership wants,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp — what’s more surprising is that Scalise seems to have mostly overcome such doubts inside the Capitol dome.
“He has far exceeded my expectations. I support him, and I was active in Tom Graves’s campaign for RSC chairman,” Mulvaney says.
In that sense, it’s almost surprising Scalise didn’t let Teller go sooner. He was widely expected to replace Teller upon taking the chairmanship but came under pressure from skeptics to keep him. The conflicts with Teller, Scalise friends say, had been building for quite some time.
But Teller, who at age 42 was working for his seventh RSC chairman, was something of an institution — and a powerful one — in Congress. He was relentless in pushing the GOP, and the RSC, to adopt the most aggressive tactics; the Capitol will be a substantially different place without him there.
Teller declined to comment. Through a spokesman, Scalise declined an interview request.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.