Paul Teller is Senator Ted Cruz’s current Chief of Staff, and previously served as the Executive Director of the House of Representatives Republican Study Committee. He graduated from Duke in 1993 with a B.A. in Political Science, and got his Ph.D. in Political Science from American University in 1999. He sat down with DPR’s Michael Pelle.
DPR: What first motivated you to get involved as a staffer on the Hill?
Teller: Well, I think it was mainly being at American University studying Political Science in grad school, where they very much looked down upon real-world interaction. Even though we were in DC, we never met with congressmen or people who worked on the Hill or in executive agencies. They kind of saw that as an undergrad thing to do, but “here in grad school we don’t do that.” That always irked me, so as I started studying Congress more from an academic perspective, it bugged me that the Hill was down the street but I didn’t have any interaction with it. So I think that increased my desire to work there someday because it was the thing I was studying, and it was so close but untouchable while in grad school.
DPR: Many college students see the dysfunction in Washington as a reason not to get involved in electoral politics at the national level. What would you say to those students?
Teller: I almost feel like it’s the opposite, right? Because of the dysfunction, they should get involved. Let’s try to fix it. Also, even stepping back a little bit on that, is it truly dysfunctional? I know that it’s a very easy thing to say, everyone accuses Washington of not working. Yet, in one sense it was also designed from the beginning to not be a smooth system. The whole notion of checks and balances means the branches of government push on each other and compete for power, for attention, and success. Even within the branches, for example, you have a legislature with a House and Senate that compete against each other. So the notion that everything is supposed to flow smoothly and beautifully – I don’t think that was there from the beginning and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s not there now.
Also, from a conservative perspective, sometimes the dysfunction is beautiful. You’re trying to stop something, you’re hoping something does not get enacted. If things get jammed up because there can’t be an agreement, sometimes that’s wonderful. So, if there is true dysfunction come to Washington and fix it, but on the other hand, step back and ask if it is truly dysfunction or just the way it was designed.
DPR: Speaking of the way the system is designed, in light of Paul Ryan’s recent ascendency to House Speaker, what do you believe the party leadership’s general role should be in controlling the legislative agenda in the Senate and House?
Teller: I think the consensus on the Hill and the political class is very hopeful, maybe even excited for Paul Ryan to be Speaker. There’s a lot of hope because Paul Ryan in his career has been someone who has bridged the gap between different factions of Republican Party. He is a positive guy – visionary, hopeful, incredibly smart, and innovative. He’s not one to try the exact same thing we tried last week. He’ll say let’s create some other solutions – conservative solutions to America’s problems, build coalitions around them and try to get them done. He has also made promises that he’s going to have a more open House of Representatives. He’s going to listen more, he’s going to allow more amendments, he’s not just going to steamroll over people’s opinions just because he disagrees. I think there’s just a tremendous amount of optimism in the House. And I work in the Senate, so this is just from talking to friends in the House, talking to members, talking to staff. I think there’s a little bit of an injection of hopeful optimism throughout the whole House.
DPR: Especially from the perspective of the Freedom Caucus and the Tea Party Movement, and in light of your previous leadership position on the Republican Study Committee, would you like to see greater control of the agenda from individual members as opposed to the leadership?
Teller: Yeah, no question. I think that’s what conservatives would love to accomplish – a way where the rank and file have more say. I think the individual member understands he’s one of 435 in the House, and each individual member doesn’t get to control the agenda by him or herself. But if there are principle-based caucuses who are active and thoughtfully put policy solutions together, they should at least be taken seriously. They should get votes on the floor. They should get their ideas not only allowed on the floor, but pushed by the leadership. I think that’s what was missing certainly when I was in the House. It was rare that the leadership actually took conservative ideas and pushed them, and said “these are our ideas too, we adopt them.” They always viewed conservative ideas as alien, as foreign, as something to swat down like an annoying fly. I think that’s changing from what I could tell under Speaker Ryan. It seems to be something he’s not going to do, and there will be more input from a wider array of Republicans, and frankly even Democrats throughout the House, rather than just top-down leadership telling you how it is.
DPR: To shift to more policy-oriented questions, Senator Cruz has garnered significant national attention for his role in the 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare, and again for his recent remarks about preventing the government from being funded if any money went to Planned Parenthood. Do you believe we’ve entered a period during which a wide range of partisan issues – like gun control and environmental regulation, for example – can become grounds for a shutdown, or are there more rigid limits lawmakers must abide by when using the shutdown as a bargaining chip? Are certain things off-limits when you’re talking about using a shutdown?
Teller: I think we could spend an hour and a half just on that, but two things: One, to backup, the reason we’re always facing these “shutdown crisis moments” is because the appropriations process as a whole is completely dysfunctional. Even just a few years ago you would go through individual appropriations bills and get them enacted – you know sometimes you would have to wrangle for some of the details but eventually they went to the president for signature and usually got a signature. Now sometimes we don’t even attempt to do some of the individual appropriations bills; we wait until the very end of the fiscal year and then we’re left with a big catch-all bill, either a continuing resolution or an omnibus – kind of a take it or leave it approach. So, you’re only hope to get any sort of victory is throwing it all into this catch-all bill.
The other problem is that Congress for the most part has given up its power of the purse. It’s very rare now that Congress defunds something that it doesn’t want to exist. Congress will even say “we hate this, we hate this, but here’s the cash for it.” At least from a conservative perspective, we’d love to get back to the notion that if we’re against something, we should deny the money for implementing that thing. The assumption by most congressmen now is that if something is in the current law, it has to keep being funded, even though I think the Founders never intended that. Congress is supposed to be able to decide what it wants to fund, and when, and how much.
DPR: One last question – if Senator Cruz were elected president and repealed Obamacare as he has promised, what would he do about individuals who choose not to buy health insurance but eventually require expensive procedures due to later unexpected injuries or diseases?
Teller: I think he would say, as with any other financial product, it’s your right to buy it or not to buy it. It should also be the government’s right to not cover that, to not help that person. In a free society, we shouldn’t feel like we have to pay for everyone’s food, housing, healthcare, and clothing. It’s a free country and you’re free to not have health insurance, but you’re also free to suffer the consequences should you not have health insurance and things go wrong for you.
Having said that though, he’s very much interested in healthcare reform that’s aimed at personal control over your own healthcare and health insurance decisions. He’s also interested in reforms that get the pricing down, and not from the government saying the prices should be lower, but making it so that there’s more transparency in the healthcare market. For example, right now most people don’t pay for their own healthcare directly, a third party pays for it. You pay a health insurance company and the health insurance company pays for all your healthcare. We don’t do that for food or housing, and you don’t buy a car that way, you do direct transactions. The more direct transactions there can be in healthcare, the more market forces will kick in to bring some prices down and make it easier for people to either have insurance or directly buy healthcare-related services even without insurance – like the way you may use car insurance if you get into a massive accident but not to fix a ding in your windshield or to replace a tire. If you’re just going for a healthy check-up, why should we have insurance for that? That could be something we pay for directly.
DPR: But for catastrophic injuries for uninsured people, should there be some formal government mechanism for providing care, or is paying for care left up to civil society?
Teller: That’s a problem that we still need to explore. I don’t know that there’s a major solution to that. He certainly is not in favor, obviously, of having people languish in the streets who have catastrophic injuries – but just saying that government will pay for any catastrophic injury that’s out there is also not a sustainable proposition. That’s something we’d obviously have to look at, but we’d want to do things to encourage people to save for their own health insurance purchases – not require it, but encourage it, because it’s more reasonable, because there’s choice and price transparency.