“Why We Left Congress”: Excerpts of Our Conversation with Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA)

Two-term Congressman Ryan Costello (R-PA) has represented Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District since January 2015.

He currently serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is one of 12 House Republicans who has cosponsored the bipartisan, bicameral Honest Ads Act, legislation aimed at combating hidden foreign disinformation campaigns in U.S. politics by implementing a common-sense disclosure system for paid, online political advertising. 

During his first term in Congress, Costello served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee as well as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. An alumnus of Villanova University’s law school, Costello was the chairman of the Chester County Board of Commissioners earlier in his political career.

In February 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the lines of the state’s congressional districts, after declaring the previous map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. In March, Costello announced that he would not run for re-election.

In September, Costello, along with fellow outgoing Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL), appeared at an exit interview event on Capitol Hill hosted by the R Street Institute. Issue One and the R Street Institute compiled the following excerpts from Costello’s remarks there for the “Why We Left Congress” project, a joint report about congressional dysfunction and what can be done to fix it, based on exit interviews with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who decided not to run for re-election in 2018.

On how committee chairmanship decisions are made:

The steering committee votes on who the next chairman is. There are a lot of variables that go into that. Seniority is at the top of the list. I think policy acumen is number two. Frankly, in this environment, I think your ability to go on television and defend a position and your media skills is number three … The best way to become a chairman is to be real liked.

On the fundraising pressures faced by committee chairmen:

The more supportive you can be towards other candidates and your colleagues speaks to your desire to keep a Republican majority. And part of governing and being good on the policy side is making sure that you’re putting toward policies that Congress can get behind and that you can sell well. And I don’t mean sell in a cheap way, I mean sell in a way that expands support for it.

On money in politics:

Look at the number of outside organizations that get seven-figure, eight-figure checks from individuals, who can just go into one of our districts and literally just blow our head off … You’d probably want your representative to be well-funded so that they wouldn’t get torpedoed or propped up … by one or two people from the outside.

On the fundraising pressures faced by members of Congress:

I maybe spent, [during] my first term, like maybe five hours a week [fundraising], maybe, at the most, ten [hours a week], between making calls and attending events too. Remember, you go to an event, you know, that’s two hours of your time. My second term, very little. I mean, I’d just show up for events … I have to be honest with you: It’s not that overwhelming of a thing. It’s really not. That’s been my experience. Now I’m on [the] Energy and Commerce [Committee], so it’s a little bit easier.

On how campaign fundraising works:

You’re paying people to make your calls and do your events and yada yada yada … They’re drilling down so that if you actually have to call and do that kind of stuff, you know, that’s a small period of time, because a part of their job is to make sure you’re not spending a lot of time on that, right? … The D.C. stuff is kinda like on autopilot. You have your PAC directors our there, and they just do all that stuff and you show up.

On partisanship today:

It is really everybody against whomever’s in office, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you’re elected, boy, people are pissed off at you … [People] just decide [they] don’t like any of us, which isn’t a good state of affairs. We lose credibility in institutions. To me, that’s the defining issue of our time … Seven-, nine-, 11-, 13-year-olds, what do they think about our democracy? And what do they think about politics? I don’t think it’s good. And I don’t think that’s good for the health of our institutions and for our country.

His advice to incoming members of Congress:

Keeping an hour or two to yourself every day just to breathe a little easier, a little deeper, and give yourself some moments of self-reflection and do a little extra reading is probably the best advice I would give to someone coming in.

On what it takes to be a successful member of Congress:

Have some humility and find the humor in things because people are gonna be mean. People are gonna take shots at you … Sometimes it’s legitimate, and you do need that feedback, and that’s where the humility comes in, but sometimes it can be far-fetched, and that’s where, if you can see the humor in it rather than take it personal, I think that that’s very important.  

And the other thing I would say is do your best to be open-minded, or, I would say, intellectually ambidextrous … Don’t assume that what you think is the only way of thinking or that your perspective is right because you’ve read a bunch of books and you’ve felt that way your whole life.

Want to read more about this topic? Check out the full “Why We Left Congress” report, written by Marian Currinder of the R Street Institute and Michael Beckel and Amisa Ratliff of Issue One.