Taub Is at Your Service

Posted November 19, 2008 at 3:17pm

Congress, as Robert Taub likes to say, is a collection of 435 small businesses.

Taub, the chief of staff to Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), runs his office on the third floor of the Rayburn House Office Building with the guidance of a two-sentence mission statement hanging unobtrusively on the wall.

It emphasizes, not surprisingly, constituent service that is “effective, timely and compassionate,” and legislation that is “aggressively” crafted, “utilizing both traditional and innovative approaches.”

And while that may seem generic advice, McHugh’s constituents are scattered across just more than a quarter of New York state, which means they might have to rely on their Congressman a bit more than people in districts with large urban centers.

As for innovative approaches to legislation, it’s hard to imagine passing the landmark postal reform act of 2006, which McHugh (and Taub) ushered into law over 12 long years, without an ample measure of creativity.

Besides Taub, there are nine other staffers in McHugh’s office, plus five more in the four offices that stretch across his district, which is larger than 12 states.

The Adirondack Park Preserve, at six million acres, shoots up the middle of the district.

Fort Drum, the home of the 10th Mountain Division, is also there. Next year, McHugh will be the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

The district’s biggest towns — Plattsburgh, Watertown and Oswego — have fewer than 30,000 people each.

“When you have over 14,000 square miles, you have to be responsive to constituents’ issues,” Taub said. “Casework is the largest driver — veterans’ benefits, stimulus checks.”

The office’s senior caseworker, Ruth Mary Ortloff, has been on the job 27 years.

Taub, 44, is from Gloversville, a small town just half an hour from Albany that, until the 2002 redistricting, was in McHugh’s district.

Taub left Gloversville, where his mother was a nurse and his father was a comptroller in a leather tannery, and came to Washington, D.C., in 1982, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from American University.

He wrote his senior thesis on Chester A. Arthur, who succeeded James Garfield as the 21st president after Garfield died two months after an assassination attempt. In his CQ Congressional staff directory biography, Taub lists just one thing under interests: “the presidency of Chester A. Arthur.”

Taub’s political career, however, started in high school, where he folded letters for his local assemblyman, Glenn Harris, in his Johnstown district office.

In college, Taub interned with McHugh’s predecessor, Rep. Dave Martin (R-N.Y.); Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.); and Austin Mitchell, a Labour Party member of Parliament from Great Grimsby during a semester abroad at the University of Leeds.

“It was 1985, and Thatcher was in power, and it really struck me, coming from Congress, which was a very professional environment. I’d go there, there was one desk in a room half the size of this,” he says, motioning to McHugh’s office, “and an old guy who looked like Winston Churchill who used to chomp on an unlit cigar.”

After England, Taub became a staff assistant to Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) and got his master’s degree in political science at AU. He then took a job as an evaluator in the General Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office.

Taub left the GAO after a couple of years, spent half a year working in the office of lobbyist and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lee Verstandig, and then went back to the GAO for a five-year stint.

It was there that in late 1994 he received a call from McHugh’s then-chief of staff, Carey Brick.

“‘We just got the majority, and we’re looking for a GAO-type,’” Taub recalls Brick saying.

McHugh, meanwhile, was shopping for Christmas lights in Watertown when he got a call from Rep. Bill Clinger (R-Pa.), then-chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

Republicans had just taken the majority, a Postal Services subcommittee had just been organized, and Clinger wanted to know whether McHugh would become its chairman.

“‘How hard could this be?’ McHugh said. ‘You lick a stamp.’ Little did we know,” Taub said.

In fact, McHugh, with Taub at his side, became Mr. Post Office, working a dozen years on legislation that culminated in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which provided new flexibility for competitive pricing and strengthened postal oversight.

“There are all these subplots,” he said, explaining the time it took to pass the bill. But, he added, “it’s very rare to be involved in something legislatively that touches the lives of all of us.”

Taub worked on the subcommittee and became its staff director for three years in 1998. When Brick retired in 2000, after more than 30 years on the Hill working for three Members of Congress, Taub became McHugh’s chief of staff.

There’s a huge difference in running a personal office and running a subcommittee, Taub said.

On the committee, the main focus is legislative hearings and oversight. In the personal office, he said, “the first order is serving the almost 800,000 constituents.”

And that means handling a “crushing” amount of e-mail. “There’s been an exponential growth in correspondence,” Taub said, “but staffing levels were set in the 70s.”

“With e-mail, you can rant and rave and hit the ‘send’ button. People don’t even always know they’ve sent an e-mail.

“But if somebody’s sending you a letter, you get up the next day before you mail it and think, ‘Why did I write that?’ Now there isn’t that filter.”

Taub said the office answers every letter and tries to answer every e-mail, even mass e-mails, provided the sender lives in New York’s 23rd Congressional district.

There is a staff retreat at the beginning of every Congress. “We fly down the district staffers and go over in a room in the Capitol with John, and we set out our goals.

“So much of what we do is reactive, a phone call coming in, whatever hit the papers that day. It’s too easy to take a shotgun approach,” he said.

One of a chief of staff’s most problematic challenges, Taub said, is managing the interpersonal issues that can come up in a cubicle setting with little privacy. “Everybody knows what you had for lunch,” he said.

“My whole tenet is communications and modeling it. Getting your butt off the desk and talking,” he said, instead of relying on e-mail, which is easy to misinterpret.

It’s not a hierarchical office, and any staff member, including Taub, might answer the phone. “I don’t have a designated phone answerer,” he said.

Taub has worked for McHugh for nearly 14 years. “I think of him as a friend,” he said.

But, he added, “it’s always important to keep in mind, they’re the one with the certificate of election. No one else has it. As a Member of Congress,” Taub said, “the bean’s on your nose.”