U.S. House candidate Dusty Johnson is visiting Aberdeen today. He started the day campaigning at the Airport Café.
The Mitchell Republican sat down to talk about “Dusty’s Dozen,” a list of policy proposals that he labels “12 Ways to Improve America.” In introducing this policy brief, Johnson said he gets questions about abortion, guns, and border security all the time, and he emphasized his conservative bona fides on those hot-button issues. But he said those issues “don’t need this platform.” He thus spent the hour talking about more practical, granular policies and listening to what his small table audience had to say about them.
1. Term Limits: “Congress shouldn’t be a career. Twelve-year term limits should be imposed on the U.S. House. To implement this policy will require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Johnson says term limits will change the psychology of Representatives for the better. If a Congressperson knows that he or she won’t be hanging around Congress for no more than twelve years, that Congressperson may not feel the same pressure to accommodate special interests.
Johnson acknowledged that term limits take away voting rights. He said he opposed term limits until about five years ago, when he decided that the structural advantages of incumbency are just too great. Johnson contends that term limits have benefited the South Dakota Legislature by bringing in new blood and will produce similar benefits in Congress.
Johnson said he would not push for term limits for the U.S. Senate. He said the Founding Fathers wanted the Senate to be a different body from the House. (Besides, in all of South Dakota history, no one but Karl Mundt has ever won more than three terms in the Senate.)
2. Balanced Budgets: “A $20 trillion debt is not sustainable. We have borrowed from our grandchildren without their permission. The Constitution should be amended to require, after a phase-in, balanced federal budgets.”
Johnson acknowledges that balancing the federal budget and sticking with it would require hard decisions. He says we won’t balance the budget strictly by cutting discretionary spending. Another good Republican at the table acknowledged that South Dakota gets a lot of federal funds. Johnson has not defined his phase-in period, but he says a transition to balanced budgets would take at least six years. That really hard transition will be complicated by Policy #5 below.
3. Work Requirements: “Work provides dignity, powers out economy, offers opportunity, and stabilizes families. People who can work, should work. We can improve the lives of able-bodied welfare recipients by requiring on-going work or training.”
4. Drug Testing: “Our nation is in the midst of a profound drug epidemic. States should have greater flexibility to drug test welfare recipients. This will allow us to hold users accountable and to provide them the treatment needed to get their lives back on track.
These two policies, along with Policy #6, appeal to the conservative base. Johnson insists he’s not trying to punish people; he nodded to his own working-class upbringing and assistance his family received to show his sympathy for folks who need help. But as he helps, Johnson keeps one eye on the goal of getting folks back on their feet so they don’t need any more help.
Asked about House Republicans’ rejection of drug testing for SNAP in the current Farm Bill draft, Johnson said he has looked into the example of Florida’s seemingly cost-ineffective welfare drug-testing program, which House Republicans cited to justify not pursuing drug testing for SNAP. Johnson says those results don’t reflect the unknown deterrence effect. Johnson looks beyond the immediate cost/benefit analysis of whether the drug tests pay for themselves with savings from benefits withheld from drug users. He maintains that drug tests are worth the cost if they get parents to stop doing drugs, because those parents will then treat their kids better and be able to get off public assistance sooner.
Johnson does note that his push for “greater flexibility” means giving states like California the freedom to do even more liberal things. Johnson says that being a federalist (and he puts “federalism” at the top of his issues page) doesn’t mean allowing states to do only the things he likes; it means giving them the freedom to do things he might not like.
5. Retirement Age: “When Social Security was founded, the life expectancy for an American male was 64 years old. We will honor commitments to those who currently receive (or will soon receive) Social Security and Medicare, but eligibility for young people should be adjusted.”
Johnson said Social Security was intended to take care of people who outlived their savings. He does not advocate privatization. He also seems to oppose letting workers lock their contributions up in private investments, an idea mentioned by one voter, since current dollars pay for current benefits. Johnson said he opposes means testing and lifting the maximum Social Security-taxable earnings (currently $128,400) to extend solvency of the program; however, he acknowledged that those two policies are items he could hold his nose and vote for to achieve his goal of a higher retirement age.
Johnson compared his pragmatism to the bipartisan deal struck by Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in 1983 to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67. (That plan started creeping up the retirement age after 2002. We’re nearing the end of an eleven-year hiatus that is keeping the retirement age at 66. After 2020, the retirement age will again creep up two months each year until it hits 67 in 2027.)
6. No More Welfare Soda: “Most Americans are willing to finance our food stamp program because they want the nutritional needs of poor children met, but the most common item purchased with food stamps is soda pop. We need to better target our nutritional assistance.”
No one at the table said “Nanny State.” But I wonder: if we’re going to start excluding food and drink from SNAP eligibility based on nutritional value, must we also exclude cookies (chocolate chip, but not oatmeal raisin)? potato chips (but not Sun Chips)? hot dogs (but not veggie dogs)?
It is not a simple task to draw a bright line between foods that contribute to a healthy diet and those that do not. Common sense suggests avoiding foods that are low in nutrients but high in some combination of calories, fats, added sugars, and salt. In practice, however, drawing the distinction between healthy and unhealthy foods is far more difficult.
…Are “healthy” foods characterized by the absence of nutrients to be avoided, the presence of desirable nutrients, or a combination of both? The choice here is not straightforward. Diet sodas, for example, may pass a test based only on the absence of undesirable nutrients: they have no fat or sugars, are low in calories, and contain little sodium. Based on these criteria alone, they would appear preferable to orange juice. Similarly, some brands of potato chips have less sodium per serving than some popular brands of breakfast cereal. Characterizing foods based on the presence of desirable nutrients can be similarly problematic. Doughnuts are not often a source of desirable nutrients, but at least one manufacturer offers a “SuperDonut” fortified with protein, vitamins, and minerals – along with significant calories, fat, and added sugars. Finally, if both characteristics are important, one needs to determine the point at which the benefit of desirable nutrients outweighs the presence of nutrients to be avoided or consumed in moderation. Some fortified breakfast cereals, for example, contain relatively high levels of added vitamins and minerals, but are also high in added sugars and sodium. (See Appendix A for more examples). The question then becomes which foods should be permitted, and which should not? [USDA Food and Nutrition Service, “Implications of Restricting the Use of Food Stamp Benefits,” March 1, 2007]
Johnson said more than once that he’s an evidence-based policymaker. He’ll want to review that 2007 USDA paper, which says there is no evidence that SNAP product restrictions can make recipients eat healthier food. He’ll also want to consider whether his proposed pop-stop bears any significant compared to the main health benefit of SNAP: filling hungry kids’ bellies.
7. Reform IHS: “Indian Health Service is an embarrassment. We should work with tribes to explore other delivery mechanisms, along with reforms that provide greater flexibility to tribal members, medical providers, and tribal governments.”
The Cheyenne River, Oglala, and Rosebud Sioux Tribes are asking to take over IHS’s troubled Sioux San Hospital in Rapid City under a 638 contract authorized by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Johnson finds that plan to let tribes take more ownership of their healthcare “intriguing”; however, he notes that funding for IHS would likely be exempt from his healthcare block grant program (see Policy #11 below) due to our treaty obligations to the tribes.
8. Ethanol Market Access: “Rules that slow the deployment of E15 and higher blends should be eliminated. For example, the Reid Vapor pressure (RVP) provisions allowing the sale of E10 should be extended to higher blends, which have a more favorable RVP profile than E10 does.”
Johnson tried to stick to his limited-government appeal on this tricky issue. He doesn’t propose new subsidies (though he didn’t talk about getting rid of any corn-y subsidies, either). Here he simply says that he’d like to “get government out of the way” to allow richer ethanol blends, which he says produce less smog than E10.
9. Farm Bill: “The Farm Bill is set up for reauthorization this year, but if Congress doesn’t finish on time, we’ll need a representative who will continue to work to increase CRP acres, feature a new shorter-term CRP-like program, and improve eligibility for an availability of livestock programs.”
Wait a minute—Dusty’s not a farm kid. Does he really want to be on the Agriculture Committee?
Yes. Johnson says that he intends to seek a seat on House Agriculture and will be “very comfortable” in that position. Johnson says we need a broader view of agriculture, since a majority of South Dakotans and Americans who work in agriculture don’t actually own and operate farms. Johnson reminds us that he worked for USDA right out of college, but he says his work on the Public Utilities Commission supports the work USDA and House Ag has to do on rural broadband and electricity. USDA also deals with rural lending and economic development. Johnson claims all of those items in his policy wheelhouse. (You know, I don’t recall seeing Dusty in a fresh pair of Carhartts, but his broad approach to rural issues might make him a better House Ag member than our current Congresswoman was.)
By the way, Johnson reminds us that John Thune wasn’t a farm kid, either, and he’s hunky-dory on Senate Ag.
Besides, House Ag will be where all the action is in 2019, since Johnson predicts we’re not getting a Farm Bill this year. Congress, says Johnson, “is done doing big things in 2018″… which is funny, since I didn’t even notice Congress had started doing big things this year.
10. Forest Management: “Healthy forests are those that are actively managed and that allow logging. Too often federal rules and procedures get in the way of common sense management practices. Those rules and practices should be eliminated.”
Johnson does like the easing of logging regulations in the current House draft of the Farm Bill and will work to preserve that “streamlining” in the Farm Bill he’ll get passed in 2019. The Southern Environmental Law Center says those forestry provisions “would allow logging on wide swaths of national forests without applying the usual legal protections.” The Wilderness Society calls them “potentially disastrous.”
11. State Healthcare Block Grants: “Real innovation is more likely to come at the state level. Each state has different values, and they should explore healthcare solutions that fit those values. Let’s provide the 50 ‘laboratories of democracy’ unprecedented flexibility to design ways to address healthcare.”
Johnson is focusing on evidence-based approaches to controlling costs for the states. As noted above, Johnson says block grants wouldn’t grab money from IHS, nor would it affect VA funding, since that represents a federal commitment to veterans for their service. But Medicaid—watch out. Don’t forget, as we mentioned when Senator Thune visited Aberdeen a year ago, block grants mean millions lose access to Medicaid. As with TANF, whose 1996 reform Johnson cited as his model, turning Medicaid into block grants means needs go unmet or costs shift to other payers. Reduced spending could also produce the opposite effect of Medicaid expansion: less economic activity and fewer health care jobs.
12. Federal Drug Courts: “Drug courts are a proven and cost-effective way to hold offenders accountable, save money, and get people clean. More than 80% of graduates from South Dakota’s drug courts do not reoffend. We should increase the use of specialty courts within the federal judiciary.”
Johnson here finds the intersection of fiscal conservatism and criminal justice rehab-liberalism. He said “lock ’em up” just doesn’t work with drug users. Prison doesn’t encourage users to get clean. Dealing with drug users in drug court and providing intensive, community-level supervision holds offenders accountable and gets them off the dope, which means we won’t be paying their barred room and board in the future.
Johnson spoke affectingly off his first tour of the women’s prison in Pierre, where he was disturbed to visit the little house out back with its brightly decorated rooms where little kids stay while they visit their imprisoned moms. Johnson said that jarring sight vividly reminded him that incarceration doesn’t just take a drug user out of the workforce; it tears that user from her family and the other community members who could help her kick her habit.
Johnson noted that most drug users are prosecuted in state court, so adding federal drug courts might not affect as large a number of addicts as state-level reforms. However, he noted that federal drug courts could have a big impact in Indian Country, where arrested users are under federal jurisdiction.
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Only six of us—three journalists, three regular citizens (and one of those was a local party official, so I’ll let y’all debate whether that counts as “regular”)—showed up to hear “Dusty’s Dozen.” His policy positions may not be as exciting as “reality TV” (which he mentioned in passing derision at the top of his remarks this morning), but they are worth more people’s attention and debate. Johnson said his policies don’t fit on bumper stickers, but issuing and discussing such policy statements are “an excellent way to govern.”
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The last GOP Congressional candidate to visit with me face to face in Aberdeen, Neal Tapio, opened our interaction by asking if I was “planning any disruptive activities” before launching into his own paranoid and racist screed. Today Johnson said nothing racist or paranoid. Dusty didn’t sound afraid of anything, certainly not of me. He shook my hand and introduced me to his father-in-law/driver as a “notorious” lefty blogger. He also welcomed me at his table and answered my questions just like everyone else’s.