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Full interview: Johnson discusses upheaval in House

Rep. Johnson's office

This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

Rep. Dusty Johnson joined SDPB's In the Moment Thursday to discuss the removal of Rep. Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House. Below is a full transcript of the interview.

Lori Walsh: A last minute compromise temporarily halted the looming government shutdown last week. But that compromise came with chaos in the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. House is now without a speaker after Kevin McCarthy was ousted. Is the unprecedented move a warning sign for democracy and what comes next? South Dakota's lone representative Dusty Johnson is with us now on the phone for an update. Congressman Johnson, welcome back to the program. Thanks for being here.

Rep. Dusty Johnson: You bet.

Lori Walsh: “Warning sign for democracy,” I'm pulling that from a headline in the Washington Post. Do you agree with that characterization? How severe in your mind is the ousting of Kevin McCarthy?

Rep. Dusty Johnson: Oh, that may be just a bit of hyperbole, but listen, the situation is not good. I mean, you've got eight hardliners who decided that they were going to destabilize the presidential line of succession and the functioning of our government at a time when we got a lot to do. I mean, we've got a government shutdown in 40 days. The adults in the room are not allowed right now to roll up their sleeves and get to work on those things. And the problem with the eight hardliners is, Lori, they're not done. I mean, it's just never enough with these guys. Some of them are principled, others of them though are interested in themselves, in attention and in chaos. And when you've got pyromaniacs, the fact that they have burned down one house does not satisfy them. It makes them hungry to go burn down a couple more. So, this is not a good situation.

Lori Walsh: What kinds of conversations are you having now with Democrats and with other members of your own party about how to get past this and move forward in a reasonable and timely way?

Rep. Dusty Johnson: It's been a little hard to have conversation with Democrats. I mean, let's remember 96% of Republicans understood the important stability that came with keeping Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House. It was really the Democrats that empowered the other 4% to throw out the speaker. Now, you may say, Dusty, isn't it a little naïve to expect the Democrats to bail out Republicans? Well, I would say it's not about bailing out Republicans. It is about making sure that we have stability for this country. And oh, by the way, that we're able to find two-party solutions. I mean, the final sin of Kevin McCarthy's reign, the thing that put the hardliners into the most terrible tizzy was the fact that he had worked with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown. And I would just say to my Democratic friends, if working with Democrats is a political death sentence, then we're going to get a lot less of it in the future. And so, I'm not just frustrated with the hardliners, I'm frustrated with the Democrats that are going to make it even that much more difficult to find common ground in our country.

Lori Walsh: I would say it would be hard to miss some of the—satisfaction, maybe is not the right word, but I'm not finding the right word—from Democrats that I think is worthy of challenging. And then they also point out that this has been a long time coming that you can go back to the rise of the Tea Party and the young guns and the conservative movement. And some Democrats are saying, this is the natural consequence of allowing your party to have a voice for these people and this is where it ends. So, I think both of those things are probably happening at the same time where maybe there's some delight like, oh hey, that party is self-destructing without looking in the mirror carefully. But there is also this like, well, where does it end? So let's start there. What do you do with the faction of people and whatever party that wants to burn down the system, how do you deal with them?

Rep. Dusty Johnson: You are right that it's hard to find the right word in English. The Germans have done it better than we have in so far as they have the word schadenfreude, which is happiness over someone else's problems, over their unhappiness. There is a lot of schadenfreude in the Democratic party and a lot of “I told you so.” There is too much extremism in American politics. There is too much toxicity. I think it is either naïve or intentionally deceitful for people to allege that it's only within one party. We have had in large urban areas, we have had even some violent crimes decriminalized. We have had a willingness of people to not hold folks accountable for smash and grabs. We have had, I think, some really, really aggressive social policies that don't unite Americans but push them apart and we don't need to litigate those now, I would just say it doesn't seem like either American political party is very healthy right now. And I try not to take a lot of satisfaction over the dysfunction within the Democrat party because you know what? America deserves, America needs, the world needs, our country to have two practical, functional and sane parties. We need a sane left-of-center party. We need a sane right-of-center party. So, for my colleagues that were all too excited to help Matt Gaetz and the other hardliners assemble the fuel, light the match and watch Republican House leadership burn to the ground, I am concerned that they have put their own partisan interests and their schadenfreude ahead of the interest of the country.

Lori Walsh: What happens next? What's the pathway forward from your vantage point?

Rep. Dusty Johnson: As I said, we're in a bad spot and if we don't address some of the foundational problems in the House, electing a new speaker isn't going to do a lot. It will be the same stupid clown car with a different driver. And it's easy to blame the politicians. And I suppose it's easier yet for the politicians to blame the media, but a lot of this comes back to the electorate. Both politicians and the media are prone to responding to incentives in the system. And increasingly, the American electorate likes clickbait. They like anger, they like fear, they like being whipped up into a thick froth. And when they send that message that that's what gets eyeballs in online news stories and that's what gets votes in an election and that's what gets small dollar donations online, then people in the system are naturally going to comport themselves to those incentives. I mean, I try not to, I know you try not to, but I think even some of our competitors, Lori, would probably be willing to accept the fact that you and I are a little bit more deliberate and a little bit more thoughtful than many in the "marketplace." And so, if we don't as a country figure out how to realign incentives so that a pragmatism of practicality, of solutions focused rather than a problem focused polity exists, I don't know that it matters who the speaker of the house is. Because maybe we get through this dumpster fire, but there's going to be one more and one more and one more. And I guess I'm just trying to be a voice to ask those questions now as my colleagues are asking me who the next speaker of the House is going to be, I'm just trying to say, let's focus on the bigger problems and what do we need to get done.

Lori Walsh: Yeah, listen, America, it's all hands on deck. And that means South Dakotans too. That means how we have our conversations. That means the questions that we ask, that means how we go to the polls. That means how we talk about each other, how we tweet about each other. And at the risk of fearing that someone's just going to tweet out “is Dusty Johnson the next speaker of the House.” My question to you would be, you have come to this job from the beginning as a bipartisan voice, and some people can pick issues with different things that you've said here or there, but by and large you have led with that. You've led with “I'm a policy guy” from the beginning. Are you or someone like you, does someone you have a chance at being the next leader? Or is that just we are not even close to being there yet? How does that land with you is the question?

Rep. Dusty Johnson: Yeah. It's not even theoretically possible. Fox News yesterday was running throughout the day pictures of eight Republicans most likely to be speaker of the House. They had my picture included among them in part because NBC News had written an article the day before that I was kind of a dark horse because I was well-respected within the Republican conference. But there is a thousand miles between being respected by your colleagues and having them think you'd be an effective speaker of the House. Listen, the political landscape is not such that I could be an effective speaker of the House today. I mean, I don't have to like that, but I need to acknowledge it. And I think we all just need to be called to try to find the spot where we can be the most productive rather than to complain about the spots where we wouldn't be as productive.

Lori Walsh: Yeah. Well, Congressman Johnson, I know you have many things to do today. We'll let you go and we'll touch base with you again next week and see how things are progressing. We thank you very much for showing up today.

Rep. Dusty Johnson: Sure. Thanks, Lori.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.