Perhaps being born in Pierre was foreshadowing for Dusty Johnson’s rise through the political ranks.
Recently elected the chair of the Reagan-conservative-styled Main Street Caucus, South Dakota’s lone congressman said he is ready to make sure House Republicans are focused on scoring conservative policy wins.
And when the 46-year-old walks into the U.S. Capitol on January 3, it will be the first time in his congressional career that his party is in control of the House.
In his usual high-energy demeanor on Tuesday, Johnson told the Journal his party's narrow majority reminds House Republicans that in order to secure those policy wins, they’ll have to focus on some common-ground items.
“If we’re going to get done what we need to get done in the next two years — in fixing the border, fixing inflation, and fixing crime in our cities — we’re going to need to focus on working in a way that pulls together people from more than just one party in D.C.,” he said.
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Johnson’s Day 1 priority for the 118th Congress is tackling inflation. The latest inflation rate, published for the 12 months ending in November 2022, is 7.1% — down from a high of 9.1% in June, but still far above the 1.2% rate in November 2020.
He has repeatedly called on the Biden Administration to cut back on spending, and joined 206 of his Republican colleagues in voting against the Inflation Reduction Act in August.
“I’ll give our country a lot of grace for the bipartisan work we did in the earliest days of the pandemic, but in the last two years — when we haven’t been in a recession — for this administration to continue to have spent as though we were in the Great Depression is not supported by any kind of economic or political reality,” Johnson said.
But Johnson took aim at conservative specters as well. He called China America’s adversary, and he wants the government to curb that country's influence and data-collecting abilities. His “Block the Tok” bill — introduced in September — would prevent the Chinese government from accessing U.S. customer data from within China and prohibit the app on all government devices. The Senate’s version was included in the spending package, which Johnson says is way too big.
“I have every expectation I’ll vote against the omnibus,” he said. “But it’s good to see the policy I pushed for months [has] a real chance of becoming a law.”
Johnson also echoed South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s concerns about the foreign purchase of agricultural land and processing facilities.
As of Dec. 31, 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports 356,579 acres of foreign-held agricultural land in South Dakota.
In a similar vein, Johnson agrees that food security is national security, and has spent much of his D.C. career working on legislation to fix supply chain issues. The House passed his bipartisan Ocean Shipping Reform Act in December 2021 with a 364-60 vote.
Alongside Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) Johnson introduced the Strengthening the Agriculture and Food Supply Chain Act in May, which would dedicate a USDA task force to identifying specific recommendations to improve supply chain safety and security.
He’s been outspoken for months — if not years — on the issue of border security, pushing again for southern border closures to curb the import of fentanyl and meth. Johnson referred to a previous meeting with Pennington County Sheriff-elect Brian Mueller, saying when asked what Congress could do to help, Mueller told him “close the border.”
According to the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, its Unified Narcotics Enforcement Team seized just over 128 grams of fentanyl in 2020. In 2021, that number jumped to 960.55 grams.
“I think the three-pronged approach to dealing with that is, number one, for users [making] sure that treatment is a part; with traffickers and dealers, let’s make sure our penalties are severe enough; and then let’s close the border.”
Between tackling fentanyl and foreign-owned ag, Johnson’s ready to take on the Farm Bill. Reauthorized every five years, the Farm Bill addresses everything from sustainability to forestry. He’s expecting to chair a subcommittee that will draft the omnibus law’s next iteration, and said it will give South Dakota a “great seat at the table.”
“I don’t know any producers asking for a handout,” Johnson said. “What they do want are risk management tools. I think step one is making sure that we keep in place risk management tools that producers lean on, but then step two is going to be making sure that we make the tweaks to make the programs even better.”
But it's not just about making programs better. Johnson called the Social Security and Medicare programs a “demographic time bomb.”
“When Social Security was founded, there were 16 workers for every retiree,” he said. “Now that number is trending toward two workers for every retiree. Anyone who tells you that the programs are fine and Congress shouldn’t touch them is delusional and is making a conscious decision to bankrupt the programs. If we do nothing, they go insolvent.”
With tactful syntax on the sensitive topic of entitlement programs, Johnson clarified his position, saying he has no intention of adjusting the benefits of those already receiving Social Security or Medicare.
“For people who are my age — say 46 years old and younger — I do think we need to acknowledge that they may live 20 years longer than their grandparents,” he said. “So maybe having them work an extra year or two to be able to secure the additional 18 years of retirement is probably not the worst idea… or rather than saying it’s not the worst idea, I should say it’s absolutely something we need to consider.”
Republican leaders have repeatedly hinted at their desire to pursue investigations, including Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the Biden family’s overseas business dealings, something Johnson said is a key part of Constitutional checks and balances.
The controversial Jan. 6 Committee voted this week to refer four criminal charges against former President Donald Trump to the Department of Justice. Rep. Johnson was one of the 35 House Republicans who voted to create an independent, bipartisan commission, but spoke out against the committee when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled two Republicans.
“Every Congress throughout American history has engaged in oversight,” Johnson said. “I think we want to make sure we’re asking questions about failures of the executive branch in the past, as well as focusing on how can we do a better job in the future?”
Johnson said he’s waiting for the committee’s report before making a judgment, telling the Journal, “I’ve always been somebody who is most interested in reviewing the evidence before I come to a conclusion.”
The 118th Congress begins on January 3, 2023.
Contact Darsha Dodge at firstname.lastname@example.org