WASHINGTON • If you don’t know what Rep. Jerry Costello has been up to in Congress, it’s by design.
Costello, D-Belleville, whose last day in Congress is today, is a repeat member of the “Obscure Caucus,” Roll Call newspaper’s list of House members who steadfastly operate out of public view.
The dozen or so members who make the occasional list fall into “the ever-shrinking category of non-self-promoting politicians,” according to the Capitol Hill paper.
During his 24 years in Washington, Costello has largely avoided talk shows, interviews and almost anything that smacks of political confrontation. The most devoted C-SPAN viewers wouldn’t recognize him because he rarely takes to the House floor to speak.
Costello, a political moderate and the longest-serving House member from Illinois, announced his retirement in October 2011, citing a desire to do something else in life. More than a year later, he remains somewhat vague on what that will be.
He is being replaced in the Metro East district by Bill Enyart, a Democrat and former head of the Illinois National Guard, who won the seat in the November election.
Costello may be obscure in the public’s mind, but House members know him well, as do labor unions, Air Force brass and people on both sides of the Mississippi River who have observed his bricks-and-mortar successes up close.
“He’s a workhorse, not a showhorse,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
Over the years, Costello has been instrumental in securing a host of projects for the St. Louis region, from roads and bridges to new missions for Scott Air Force Base.
As a senior member of the Transportation Committee, he also had a lot to say about the nation’s airline safety, most recently in legislation requiring more training of pilots. Last year, he led the effort to preserve a rule making it easier for airline employees to organize into unions.
Costello in many ways is a throwback to the days when political opponents shared cocktails after adjournment, and a member’s worth was measured in how many successful earmarks he or she engineered.
In a recent interview in Washington, Costello talked about his style, his projects and the changes he has witnessed.
Q: Have you figured out what you will do next?
A: Three universities in the St. Louis metropolitan area have talked to me about teaching a course or lecturing. And I’ll probably do some consulting on my own. I will not be joining a firm here in Washington or Chicago or anywhere else. I want to be able to select the people and the issues. One firm said we’d really like to have you; you’d be going to Turkey on Wednesday. This was a Monday. That’s not the kind of lifestyle I’m looking for.
Q: You didn’t seem to mind being selected to the Obscure Caucus. Was it a conscious effort to do your work behind the scenes?
A: That’s been my style ... If you want to create news by jumping into a controversy, you make it more difficult to work with the other side. I personally disagreed with President George W. Bush on many issues, but I never went to the floor of the House and attacked him. Privately, I made it known to his administration that I thought they were headed down the wrong road. I purposely avoided the limelight. I don’t even have a press secretary.
Q: You’ve been associated with nearly every major public works project in the Metro East for two decades. What stands out in your mind?
A: In my first term, we were able to secure the money for the new Clark Bridge in the Alton area. There’s MetroLink and the new Mississippi River bridge. We rehabilitated the Martin Luther King Bridge, the McKinley Bridge. In the Shiloh area, there are several thousand jobs because of an interchange off I-64 that the federal government funded through an earmark. One of my first projects was to put an interchange off I-255 so you have direct access from the interstate to the airport. Since then, you have at least 3,000 or 4,000 jobs right next to the airport. Scott Air Force Base was on the closure list internally in the Pentagon. But we were able to grow Scott and bring new missions to the base.
Q: It seemed sometimes your district didn’t stop at the Mississippi River.
A: What’s good for downtown St. Louis is good for Illinois, and vice versa. I was the only elected official in Illinois I’m aware of that supported MetroLink in Phase One. I said, “Look, Missouri wants it. If it’s successful, Phase 2 can come to Illinois.” Now it goes from Lambert International Airport to Scott Air Force Base.
Q: If today’s earmarks moratorium would have been in place, wouldn’t it have been harder for you to secure that many projects for the region?
A: It would have been. But it makes people like me take an innovative approach, to develop a relationship with the secretary of transportation and with the governor of Illinois. When there are block grants, the governor is going to decide where that money goes. You have to realize that when change happens, you have to adapt to it.
Q: What has changed as far as bipartisanship in Congress?
A: Ronald Reagan was able to work with Tip O’Neill, speaker of the House and a liberal. And even when they had disagreements, they’d sit down after work and have a drink. Those days, unfortunately, are over. It started to change with (former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich, who said on the floor of the House that you have to burn the place down in order to build it. In the 2010 election, a number of Tea Party folks signed pledges (not to raise taxes). I hope people realize that if you want to accomplish things, you have to work together.
Q: You’ve left some marks on the airline industry. What comes to mind?
A: After the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, N.Y. (in 2009, killing 50), it was very obvious that the first officer did not have proper training. We were able to pass a pilot safety bill that was the strongest in Congress in 50 years calling for additional training for pilots and a number of other things. When I chaired the aviation subcommittee, one of my primary objectives was to keep the spotlight and the heat on the FAA. I’m very proud of that work, and I still keep in touch with the Colgan families regularly.
Q: Do you still think it’s a good idea to ban cellphones on airplanes?
A: Yes. This actually happened to me. I’m sitting across the aisle from a guy on a plane and he obviously had gotten a “Dear John” call from his girlfriend, wife or somebody. And he’s saying “I’m on an airplane, please don’t do this to me,” and he keeps going on and on and he’s in tears. The flight attendant tells him that he’s got to shut it off and finally she says, “I’m going to go tell the pilot.” If you’re on a plane with 200 people and you’ve got 150 on a cellphone, it’s crazy. It also has to do with safety.
Q: What advice did you give Bill Enyart?
A: I told him that if he’s going to be successful, he needs to work the district hard. He needs to hold town meetings. I held 400 of them during my time. I told him he needs to listen to the district before he casts his vote. I’ve also talked to him about working in a bipartisan way. He will have the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as well as Democratic leadership recommending how he votes on certain issues. What they advise is not always in the best interests of the people he will represent.
Q: You’ll be able to stay involved politically given the fact that you have over $2.3 million left in your leadership PAC (political contributions that can be used to help candidates or for other political purposes). How will you deploy that?
A: I haven’t given a lot of thought to that. There are a number of options under the law.
Q: What will you miss around here?
A: I will miss the people. By and large, the vast, vast majority of people around here are very talented. They mean well and are here for the right reasons. There are only a handful that make it look bad for the rest of us.