Costello, Shimkus take bipartisan approach but differ on many issues
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 31, 2011 - WASHINGTON -- They don't have the same political affiliation and they disagree on many national issues, but U.S. Reps. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, and John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, have become personal friends as well as allies on some key local issues.
The affable and soft-spoken Costello didn't sit next to his more outspoken Collinsville colleague at last week's State of the Union speech, but that's mainly because everyone knows they are friends and each of them decided to sit with an opposite-party congressman from another state to show their bipartisan stripes.
"People know Jerry and I are close, and we wanted to show that we have other friends across the aisle," Shimkus told the Beacon. "This was kind of theater within theater."
When students at Shawnee High School in Wolf Lake, Ill., asked for a discussion of what can be done to improve the levees south of the Metro East area, both Costello and Shimkus came to the session last month, bringing federal officials along.
"There are differences on issues, but we still are friends," Shimkus said of Costello." We talk weekly and have been doing that for a decade without ever a break in trust. And that's through a lot of good times and bad time for both of us, individually and with our political parties -- presidential races and redistricting and local races."
Following are some of the legislative priorities of the two Illinois congressmen.
Rep. Jerry Costello
Costello, who formerly chaired the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is now the aviation panel's ranking Democrat. As one of the full committee's most senior members, he'll have a voice in the reauthorization of three major transport programs: the nation's highway programs, the Federal Aviation Administration and the water resources development program.
He also will remain on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, where he will fill in for wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., as the acting ranking member of that panel's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Costello was asked by the committee leadership to serve in Gifford's' absence as she recovers from the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson.
Costello said this week that he was honored to fill in for Giffords, who he praised as "a true champion of our nation's space program." He said he looked forward to her return as soon as her recovery makes that possible. In the meantime, Costello has plenty of local and national priorities.
As co-chair of the House Levee Caucus, Costello has pushed for a strong federal commitment to levee repair and maintenance, especially in the Metro East and Southern Illinois. His district extends southward to the state's southern tip at Cairo.
Recently, he sent a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to make funding for levee repair and water infrastructure projects a priority in his new budget proposal. Costello wrote that "Illinois and other states across the country are facing serious maintenance and repair issues with our nation's levees. By some estimates, this is a $100 billion problem, and local governments and levee districts, while largely responsible for these improvements, are hard pressed to make these investments alone."
Costello sponsored a bill that the House approved last year that aimed to help reduce the economic burden of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements that residents and businesses in some flood-prone areas without adequate levee protection buy expensive flood insurance. But that bill stalled in the Senate at year's end.
The congressman told the Beacon that "a lot of progress has been made in Metro East" on levee repair, but he is concerned that some areas along the Mississippi River south and north of the Metro East region have not made much progress. Last month, he and other members of the Illinois congressional delegation sponsored the "levee summit" meeting at Shawnee High School to discuss what can be done to improve the levees south of the Metro East area.
Another of Costello's priorities is to continue to garner federal support to establish clean coal technology in Illinois and across the nation. "I have always been a strong supporter of providing federal funds for research and development of clean coal technology, both carbon sequestration and coal gasification," he told the Beacon.
The congressman said that the coal-fueled Prairie State facility -- a state-of-the art power plant now under construction near Marissa, Ill. -- "not only has been good for the local economy by helping employ several thousand construction workers, but -- once it is finished -- will be an efficient plant."
Noting that China has built several new coal gasification plants to take advantage of its coal resources, Costello said American companies should also pursue that route. "There's no reason why we shouldn't be investing in clean coal technology, including sequestration and coal gasification," he said.
Costello said the U.S. Department of Energy's FutureGen carbon capture and sequestration project in Illinois shows the importance of clean energy technologies in improving the environment while also creating jobs. "It's been modified, but I'm a strong supporter of that project," he said.
On national issues, Costello has a generally moderate voting record, with an eye on the impact of a program on his district. For example, he voted with most Democrats against repeal of last year's health care overhaul, arguing that a federal study indicated that repeal would have a negative impact on his district, including between 109,000 and 293,000 people who might possibly lose insurance coverage due to pre-existing conditions and about 2,700 uninsured young people who the law allows to take part in their parents' health insurance plan.
"I oppose an outright repeal of health care reform, as we cannot afford to roll back critical protections for millions of Americans and increase the national deficit," said Costello. But he said any major piece of legislation can be improved, and said that he "fully expect(s) that adjustments to the health care reform law will have to be made as it is implemented, just as they have with Social Security and Medicare."
Costello supports some federal spending cutbacks but also backs the sort of investments in infrastructure that Obama outlined in his State of the Union speech. "While we have to reduce overall spending and make serious progress in reducing the deficit and debt, we cannot do so indiscriminately," he said. "We have to leave ourselves positioned to maximize economic growth in themonths and years ahead."
After the speech, Costello said he appreciated Obama's focus on clean coal as part of the nation's energy policy and the President's call to rebuild America's infrastructure. "Affordable energy and an efficient economy in the future - as well as good-paying jobs today - depend on investments in these areas," the congressman said.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville
From his house on a hilltop in Collinsville, Shimkus says he can see the Gateway Arch in the distance. Even though his congressional district encompasses all or part of 30 Illinois counties and borders more of Indiana and Kentucky than it does Missouri, he says he considers himself to be part of the St. Louis regional delegation in Congress.
These days, Shimkus -- who sought unsuccessfully to become chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee -- is energized by his new chairmanship of that panel's subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. He told the Beacon that his panel plans several hearings to examine the economic impact of federal regulations involving the Environmental Protection Agency and the nuclear energy industry.
"We'll be looking at rules and regulations to make sure there is benefit to them," he said. "And if there is no benefit and they are burdensome, then maybe we ought to look at eliminating or changing them. That's a big concern."
A major focus of the subcommittee will be major EPA programs, including the Superfund environmental cleanup program and its regulation of toxic substances, noise pollution. It also has oversight jurisdiction on chemical refinery security and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates landfill and recycling policies.
"The Superfund is a local as well as a national issue, with sites in St. Louis, Granite City, Quincy and elsewhere in Illinois," Shimkus said. "The problem with the Superfund law is that we spend too much money on litigation versus cleanup. The other issue is: cleaning up sites to which standard?"
One question the congressman plans to look into is whether, for example, a former refinery site on which a manufacturing plant is planned should be required to be cleaned up to "playground standards," or "the standard of a manufacturing site. That's important for redeveloping and recovering sites in the metropolitan St. Louis area."
With 11 nuclear reactors in six locations, Illinois is also a major nuclear energy state, and Shimkus' subcommittee has jurisdiction over nuclear waste issues.
"We need to address the nuclear waste fund, a fee that's been put on everyone's energy bills for years with the sole purpose of the federal government taking possession of high-level nuclear waste -- which we've failed to do because there is nowhere to put it," he said.
"That opens up the debate on nuclear fuel reprocessing, which [Energy and Commerce Committee] Chairman Fred Upton [R-Mich.] likes, and the issue of Yucca Mountain" - a proposed nuclear storage site in Nevada, which has been stopped by opposition from the U.S. Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Shimkus has visited the Yucca site and been a strong advocate of storing high-level nuclear waste there. "I think we need to hold oversight hearings on padlocking the [Yucca] facility. I think it's questionable that they have the legal authority to do that."
Shimkus said his subcommittee priorities will involve national issues with some regional impact, but one matter that is exclusively regional is the debate over levee and FEMA flood-plain mapping along the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
Even though his district includes only about a mile of river's shoreline, north of Alton, Shimkus has worked with Costello to try to find solutions to the problems of local communities that are concerned about the condition of their levees as well as the threat of more extensive flood insurance requirements.
"Levee and flood mapping issues are still a big deal for me because Madison County is my home county and, population-wise, represents a major portion of my district," Shimkus said. "If there were to be a levee break, little of my district would be underwater, but a lot of folks who live in my district would be unemployed for awhile."
In the Great American Bottoms area, Shimkus said, he would "work closely with Jerry Costello on improvements. The challenge for us is to make sure that the federal cost-share is there for the money that's being put in [by local governments] from the local levee tax." He said St. Clair, Madison and Monroe counties "have taken action to try to address the levee system by funding their local share. And they should not be penalized for moving aggressively to fix the problem."
South of the Metro East region, "the levee hearing we had [in December] at least brought them all together, and maybe will help start some discussions on how they can work together" to fix their levees. He heard that those areas might ask SIU-Carbondale for some help in mapping or engineering. But I think they still have a long way to go to work together on this problem."
Shimkus said his national legislative priorities can be summed up with three words: "deficit, debt and job creation." He said voters sent a clear message in November's elections that gave Republicans control of the U.S. House: "We were sent here to really address the national debt and get a handle on deficit spending."
Even though his congressional district is one of the nation's largest producers of corn and soybeans, Shimkus said agricultural subsidies should be "on the table" for possible cutbacks, as should federal subsidies for ethanol.
He also says Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs also have to be on the table for possible changes. "You have to look at them to address the national debt," Shimkus said. "You could take away every discretionary dollar - go down to zero - and you're still in a crisis mode with the national debt."