I’m sorry that I mumble,” Bill Dauster explained. “Sen. [Harry] Reid and I always would talk to each other and he’d say I mumble, and then he would go and mumble to other people, so I guess we had that in common.”
Not long ago, Dauster could be found in a Capitol Hill office, dressed in a suit and tie as he wrote speeches, worked on policy and prepared for the next week’s Senate caucus meetings. But one day last week he turned up in an orange short-sleeve polo shirt at a café in Kensington, near where he and his wife live, ordered a large coffee, and in a low voice, chatted about his career on the Hill and how he reached across party lines.
Dauster, 59, retired last month after a 31-year career in politics during which he worked on the staffs of four Democratic senators, including Reid, once the Senate majority leader. Dauster also worked on the Senate Budget Committee and had a short stint in the White House. Most recently he worked for Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
Dauster said he decided to retire after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, when working on legislation became “less fun.” He had also reached an age when he could tap into his retirement savings.
“I want to read the classics. I want to watch a lot of movies, maybe take some classes,” he said. “When we start talking about replacing President [Donald] Trump with somebody else, then I may pay attention again to what’s going on in Washington.”
Dauster said as much as he enjoyed his decades in government, he grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. To help cope, a dozen years ago he found a diversion: writing a Wikipedia entry for each of the 54 weekly Torah portions.
Dauster said the idea came to him after his boss at the time, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), asked his staff to read New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s bestselling book, “The World is Flat,” about how technology affects globalization. The chapter on Wikipedia captured his interest and he decided to have a look at the online encyclopedia edited by volunteers.
“I said, ‘Hey, they don’t have articles on the parsha of the week,” he said. “And so here’s a piece of real estate I can stake out and build. And so I’ve written articles on the 54 parshiot, and I’ve added a little bit every year since 2005.”
Dauster had studied Torah for a long time, first at Temple Emanuel in Kensington and now at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, where he is a member. So early in the 2000s when Tom Jones, a staffer for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), asked Dauster if he’d like to join a weekly Jewish study group that met on Fridays in one of the congressional office buildings, Dauster accepted.
In addition to adding to their Jewish knowledge, the group helped Democratic and Republican staffers bond socially and work across the aisle.
“I could ask Tom, ‘What was Sen. DeMint thinking on this policy?’ Or ask my friend in Sen. Portman’s (R-Ohio) office, ‘Do you think we could work together on this project?’ It doesn’t always work, but it gives you a way to start a conversation,” Dauster said. “Doing a job on the Hill is often not knowing the answer to the question, but knowing whom to call to find out what the answer is.”
Jones said he always appreciated Dauster’s friendship during the sessions and referred to his friend as a “scholar, public servant and patriot.”
“People ask me what is the quintessential Senate staffer, and it was Bill Dauster,” he said.
“You kind of run in your own universe when you’re on the Hill, so this is a way to meet smart knowledgeable people,” said Jones, who now runs a consulting firm in Edgewater, outside Annapolis.
After Jones left the Hill in 2013, Dauster took over organizing the study group, a labor of love which included putting together a weekly email with discussion questions about that week’s parsha. Staffers, Capitol Hill alumni and lobbyists were frequent visitors. Local rabbis came in to lead the sessions.
Dauster was raised in Sacramento, Calif. He became interested in politics in high school in the 1970s, when the Watergate hearings unfolded nationally on television.
“This was one of the first times they televised congressional hearings, and I just watched them gavel to gavel, and was fascinated that the congressional branch was something that could provide a useful check on the president,” he said. “I wanted to do something like that.”
He was the chairman of the Student Senate at the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in economics. He received his law degree from Columbia University in 1984.
He came to Washington in 1986 and spent the first 10 years working on the Senate Budget Committee. In 1999, he went to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and worked as President Bill Clinton’s deputy director of the National Economic Council for a year, before heading back to Capitol Hill, where he worked for Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.), as well as Baucus, Reid and Van Hollen.
Van Hollen praised Dauster with a statement that he read inside the Senate chamber last month when Dauster retired:
“With a quote or a quip, [Dauster] has brought levity to serious policy discussion,” he said. “He has built a reputation as an honest broker, a brilliant dealmaker and an incredibly generous soul.”
Dauster’s advice to people in their 20s and 30s is that a career in public service is worthwhile. For some, the best place to start may be in their own backyard.
“If Washington turns you off, spend some time in Annapolis or Rockville or another jurisdiction for a bit,” he said.
Dauster said the thing he is most proud of in his 31 years of government service is the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which he worked on during his time on the Senate Finance Committee. With the law in jeopardy, Dauster hopes Trump and congressional Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace it do not succeed. But if they do, Dauster said the Republicans are responsible for any negative repercussions.
“There is a level at which Democrats would be happy if Republicans and Trump succeeded in repealing Obamacare, because then they would own the health care consequences,” he said. “But you don’t want that to happen because then 24 million people would not have health care. And there’s real pain and discomfort and shorter lives for a lot of people.
Bill is this and much, much more. A faithful and knowledgeable participant in Beth El’s daily morning minyan, self-effacing fellow congregant and listening ear for those in need, Bill is a real mensch, in every best sense of the word.