You would think freshman Congressman Ryan Costello would be under a lot of pressure.
He sits in one of the few real contested seats in the House of Representatives and two potential Democratic challengers have already emerged.
If he is stressed out, he is incredible at hiding it.
Despite representing a R+2 district, He agreed to a nearly hour-long interview with me in his West Chester office and answered (almost) all of my questions.
Although what was most surprising was that Rep. Costello rejects the notion that a Congressman, especially one in a R+2 district seeking his first re-election, has to always be a representative and a nominee for the next election.
“I don’t view myself as a candidate right now,” he told me at one point. “I really don’t.”
In that vein, we talked about transitioning to D.C., the biggest items in the news right now and what’s ahead in 2016.
As tough as being a candidate is, switching gears in just a few months can be sometimes be just as difficult. Therefore, I started by inquiring about the transition process.
“It’s multi-layered,” Rep. Costello answered. “There’s not a lot of down time. That [Election Day] was a Tuesday, by the next week, I was in D.C. for orientation. There were a couple of other orientation seminars throughout November and December that run the gamut from issue-based, to getting your office up and running, to what a member’s staff looks like.”
While he mentioned that he didn’t have the prior legislative experience that his colleague Brendan Boyle did, he was the grateful recipient of guidance, staff and even office space from his predecessor, Jim Gerlach. As a result, the turnaround hasn’t been so rough.
“I have heard from any number of people who have had very high compliments on the seamless transition,” Costello said. “I’m a freshman member, but my staff is considerable more seasoned than a typical freshman’s staff.”
I inquired into how much freedom one has in making staff and office decisions.
“You have a budget, you have a little under $1.3 million,” he said. “That’s your budget, use it however you want. That is our office rent, those are mailings, those are electricity, those are transportation and that’s your staff. Everything, all inclusive.”
Once you’re actually sworn in, though, the job can seem a bit daunting.
“The first week or two, it’s baptism by fire. It really truly is,” the freshman admitted.
“I was fairly familiar with some of the federal programs and how it impacts the local level being a County Commissioner. But some of the more purely legislative functions were new to me.”
Yet the spectacle of the State of the Union Address didn’t faze him.
“It wasn’t a ‘pinch me’ moment for me but definitely the lights were brighter. It was a honor to represent the district there and being the person from Pennsylvania’s Sixth down there at the time was something special.”
Given that Rep. Costello occupies one of the few real swing seats in Congress, I was particularly interested in how much the so-called “permanent campaign” affects his day-to-day life.
“I haven’t really let it impact me and in some respects it reinforces for me that the best thing I could do related to re-election is to do a good job,” he responded. “Be visible, make sure people know what I’m up to. Make sure that when I speak, I’m sounding like and I’m reflecting the values and priorities that my constituents have.”
When asked about the enormous fundraising obligations new members of Congress are under, Costello asserted that he doesn’t let that get to him.
“My schedule is largely driven by making sure that I’m in the district, making sure I have time for my family. It hasn’t been the sort of hectic, super-imposed obligation on top of the daily functions of the office. I just haven’t let it become that.”
He does concede that this is a real phenomenon because he has seen it effect others.
“There are some members that, you can tell, are impacted by that and are constantly concerned about ‘Am I going to be following behind if I don’t produce this by this quarter’. Ask me a year from now, I might have a different answer. But because there’s just so much traffic in front of you in those first couple months, if you’re doing anything other than just focusing on what the job entails, and making sure that you spend time with your family; I’m not built that way. I sort of take things as they come and think over time the politics will take care of itself.”
Yet members of the House only get two years between re-election, which nowadays provides no real breathing room. Still, Ryan Costello maintained it’s not on his mind.
“I don’t view myself as a candidate right now. I really don’t. I think, ask me when I’m ready to start filling out petitions and stuff. For me, people elected me to a two-year term, the best thing that I can do to reinforce people’s support for me and grow my support is just do my job.”
“Unlike you or I or others, most people aren’t ‘all politics, all the time’. So the best way to engender good will is just to do the job you’ve be tasked with doing and actually to not force politics on people.”
I made a sports analogy that he agreed with, that if you’re worried about the politics, you’re basically playing not to lose.
Congressman Costello sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as well as the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. I asked why he chose those bodies.
“There’s been a lot of suburbanization of Southeastern Pennsylvania over the last twenty years,” he said in reference to the former committee. “Our infrastructure is clearly aging, I mean we have more structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania than anywhere else.”
“I am very much an economic growth and opportunity type of Republican,” he declared. “That’s sort of what gets me going.”
He then turned to the Veterans’ committee.
“We have the fourth-highest of vets in Pennsylvania in the country. We didn’t have any House members on Veterans Affairs. It’s also a smaller committee, so the ability to make an impact there is greater.”
What effect did the recent Amtrak tragedy have on his work?
“It reinforced my perspective that we live in a region whose infrastructure is older than other parts of the country. So any time you talk about transportation/infrastructure, you have the public safety side and the growth/regional competitive side to it.”
He went on to say that we are now more aware of the public safety aspects after the incident but that convincing colleagues to act is the critical imperative.
“It has enlightened me that there are some regions of this country that don’t place the priority on it that I do. It’s a top issue.”
How do you convince them?
“As a priority for me it’s non-negotiable, you know everybody sort of has their non-negotiables. So, that’s one way, to just continue to impress on others the importance of a long-term surface reauthorization. The need for public transportation in Southeastern Pennsylvania and how critical it is to our economy.”
Since we’ve had such trouble getting funded for critical projects, I advanced a theory from Jonathan Martin of Vox that earmark bans may have backfired on the Congress.
Rep. Costello mostly disagreed with the premise, although he is concerned about the legislative branch ceding too much power to the executive.
Supreme Court Decisions
Next, I asked about last week’s big Supreme Court rulings on Obamacare (King v. Burwell) and same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges).
“Let’s focus on the ACA decision,” he began. “I was surprised that the decision turned out the way that it did in reading the literal language that was at issue. But when the Supreme Court speaks, that’s the law.”
The Congressman was critical of the ACA, though, specifically in how it affects businesses and healthcare costs.
“I think for as much as there’s been a criticism that Republicans want to get rid of this law because it’s Obama’s law, I don’t look at things that way,” he asserted.
I turned again to this thoughts on the same-sex marriage decision.
“Based upon Kennedy’s rulings in previous opinions [Lawrence, Windsor] I had a feeling that that would be the [decision],” he said. “Again, I did two years of constitutional interpretation in college and in law school, I did a lot of constitutional law. So I look at things through the prism of sort of almost speculating where certain justices will fall, so candidly it wasn’t a surprise.”
“Did you agree with his reading of the 14th Amendment?,” I asked (Kennedy wrote that statewide bans on same-sex marriage violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment).
“I have not even, candidly, read the full opinion,” he responded. “I read, I got through the Affordable Care Act decision, which was a long opinion. So I stopped there. The next one I actually want to read is the housing decision and then I’ll probably read the EPA decision.”
He went on to talk about the EPA case as a ruling that had a practical affect on his constituents.
“But on Kennedy’s decision,” I interjected. “Did you agree with it? Disagree? Were you happy? Unhappy?”
The Congressman shrugged.
“I knew where I, I accurately predicted the holding of the Court let’s just put it that way.”
“So, you didn’t have any personal reaction or any feeling on how they ruled,” I tried again.
“There are people that feel very strongly on it, and I’ve experienced people speaking one way or another about it, and other people being very offended by what someone else says,” he answered. “You know, as a legislator, who is looking to be focused on things that are relevant and that happen in real-time in my district. I haven’t put out an official statement.”
I attempted one last time to get an answer out of him in the following exchange:
Q: “Would you say you’re conflicted, I mean because I know-”
A: “I gave you the best I can give you.”
Q: “Politicians they evolve, you know to borrow a phrase, it’s something they evolve on-”
Q: “It’s always in a constant state of flux. It’s not like you would be unique in that matter.”
A: “Yeah, that’s a fair point.
Q: “But, that’s all?
After all that, we transitioned to a potential nuclear agreement with Iran, which Secretary Kerry is currently trying to secure.
“I’m deeply skeptical at this point that we are approaching a deal that Congress can support,” Costello stated. “I base that on, sort of what’s leaked out as well as statements made by people like Senator Corker [Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee].”
Going from the most pressing international issue, we turned to the most pressing national issue, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance that go with it.
“It [TPA] was difficult for a lot of members. 95% of the world’s consumers live outside America’s borders. We need to grow our economy and the ability to export. It is a process, we voted for a process. Trade Promotion Authority, that’s the way by which we go about reviewing and ultimately approving or not approving trade deals.”
“Until I see it’s [TPP] terms, I can’t offer an opinion on whether I’ll support it or not,” he said of the ultimate agreement.
“For me it wasn’t the tough vote that it was for maybe a lot of other members. I believe in free markets, I believe in economic growth, I believe that the more opportunity we can create for American companies to do business overseas, the better off we’ll all be.”
I asked if this deal wasn’t all part of the Obama Administration’s “Asia pivot” strategy, which the Congressman agreed with.
“If we do not end up as trading partners with a lot of these countries, then China will,” he contended. “Then China will dictate terms regarding environmental standards, labor standards, intellectual property standards, or the lack thereof. So, we’re going to have to ultimately make a decision on whether a trade deal as presented, improves our economic growth prospects with those countries. Sort of brings them into the global economy with us or whether we’re gonna get shut out of a lot of those countries because China will have superimposed themselves in the Asia-Pacific. I think that would be a lost opportunity for us.”
Additionally, Rep. Costello said that Pennsylvania will benefit more than any other state from TAA.
“We can’t allow the fear of the unknown to prevent us from moving forward with actually reviewing the details and getting a vote on the actual trade deal,” he concluded.
We finished up on the topic of the 2016 presidential election and whether the Congressman was considering endorsing any of the dozen-plus candidates in the race.
“I haven’t considered that at all yet,” he stated plaintively.
Of the group he has only met Chris Christie and Rand Paul (they’re both on the congressional baseball team).
He didn’t reveal much about what he thought of the field, though he did concede that he was surprised Christie is doing so poorly. He also agreed with the belief that Bush, Walker and Rubio are the current top-tier candidates.
“I’m looking for somebody who will unite our party. That can run a 50 state strategy and keep us competitive everywhere and win. You can be the most conservative candidate in the world but if you don’t win then you’re not doing us any good because you’re never gonna be in the White House.”
It was towards the end of our conversation on this topic when Ryan Costello reiterated one last time that his focus is strictly on what’s in front of him. Despite all the outside pressures, he wants to make it clear he is dedicated to his new job.
He finished with a statement that explained every answer (and non-answer) that came before it. It may as well be his personal mission statement.
“The more I focus on everything that is encompassed by my job, the better off I’ll be, and the less I try to get in other lanes the better.”
This race is going to be a barn burner. Good candidates on each side. Two moderates in one of the last almost competitive distrcts.