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Rep. Dusty Johnson expresses frustration with U.S. House situation

Rep. Johnson's office

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

The U.S. House of Representatives is going on its third week without a speaker.

Rep. Dusty Johnson joined In the Moment Thursday to voice his frustration with the situation.

House Republicans are exploring expanding the powers of the temporary speaker. Johnson discusses what that would mean and why they need to be careful.

Lori Walsh:
It has been 15 days since speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted. House Republican Jim Jordan has lost two rounds of votes to win the speaker's gavel. He said this morning he won't pursue a third round.

The U.S. House of Representatives is effectively at a standstill, but that doesn't mean they're just standing around.

South Dakota Representative Dusty Johnson is with me on the phone now for an update. Congressman Johnson, welcome back. Thanks for being here.

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
Thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh:
Are you seeing any viable options emerge at this point?

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
I'm not, and I want to apologize to South Dakota. I mean, this U.S. House is an absolute mess. Our country, our state deserves better.

There are a lot of very well-intentioned, good systems serving in the House, Lori. They're trying to find our way forward, and I just got to tell you, we continue to be paralyzed by the kind of toxicity and zero-sum gamesmanship that is infecting our government from school boards on up.

I mean, to try to end on a slightly more positive note, I would just reiterate there are really good human beings who are trying to find their way through this, and we will.

Lori Walsh:
NPR had reported this morning that people were upset about the kind of tactics that the Jim Jordan camp was using to move things forward. I'm wondering what you're hearing about what kind of language works to build to a compromise or a potential solution.

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
Jim Jordan has not been at the base of any of this. I mean, I have seen him time and time and time again publicly and privately talk about the fact that we need — listen, this is modern D.C., this is not old school. You're not going to bully anybody into voting a particular way. It does not work, but we have so much rage within the most extreme voices of any party. They're not controllable by people in office.

Now, there are some things office-holders do to help assemble the kindling. Each of us as office-holders and as citizens, I think, have an obligation to try to reduce the likelihood of these sparks, but people aren't doing these things at Jim Jordan's direction.

Jim knows that it is thoroughly counterproductive. It has wounded, not helped, his push to become speaker, and unfortunately, there is so much violent rhetoric that is being placed at the feet and at the homes and at the offices of every member, regardless of where they stand on the speaker's race. It is really a symptom of a public square that is unwell.

Lori Walsh:
There has been much talk about empowering Patrick McHenry with additional powers to do some legislating. Do you see that as a potential step forward even if it's for two weeks?

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
For the last two hours, the 221 Republicans in the House have been having a discussion about the legal, the constitutional, the practical effects of that. As is so often the case, it is a little unclear exactly what the right thing to do is.

The Constitution Article One says that the House shall choose its speaker. That is scant wording, but it's pretty direct. For some uber constitutionalists, they don't believe that that gives us an opportunity to select a speaker pro tem, for instance, that we just have to follow the plain meaning of the Constitution and select the speaker, gosh darn it, and then we can get to work.

There are others who point to a statute passed by the House on a bipartisan basis in the wake of 9/11 that was passed for the purposes of continuity of government that seems to suggest that a speaker pro tem, Patrick McHenry in this case, would be able to exercise the full powers of the speaker of the House.

But the language is not as clear as we'd like it, and I know everybody imagines that folks in Congress are just snarling, political animals who are only trying to figure out what does the donor class want or what enriches me or what can I do to own the other side.

And that's not what's going on, Lori. It is really a lot of very smart people and a lot of very decent people who are trying to have a real conversation about what are the legal boundaries in the practical applications of this and how do we act in a way that both serves the nation in the short term, but that also does not set a precedent that might hurt our country in the long term.

It's really frustrating, and I hope that we can come to a conclusion soon.

Lori Walsh:
I don't know much about the House Parliamentarian and who is sort of the keeper of that knowledge. Are there people other than the elected representatives to the House who are helping navigate the legal complexities right now? What can you tell me about that that might be of interest to South Dakota listeners?

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
Yes, the Parliamentarian is a gentleman by the name of Jason Smith. He has a staff of dedicated and highly-trained professionals. This is a niche area of study for sure. There are not a million people who can do this, but they're really good.

The issue comes when you've got wording that is unclear, and this is something we struggle with in the law all the time. I mean, the Constitution talks about the fact that Congress can regulate interstate commerce, but what exactly does that mean?

For 247 years, we've had been having debates about this and we get nine smart people in black robes on the Court, and in 1950 they may view it differently than they did in 1850. Similarly, the Parliamentarian is just one guy, and we don't know exactly what he thinks about this. His decisions are not binding. If a majority of the House disagrees with him, then the majority of the House rules unless a court decides that we're wrong.

We don't really have the benefit of waiting around for nine months or two years for a court to conclusively decide what this means. At some point, we have an ally at war. We're $33 trillion in debt. Regardless of your political views, you have to admit the southern border is either a humanitarian or national security crisis. And it's actually both. And our government shuts down in 29 days unless we act. We are in unchartered waters, and that is why I think it was so incredibly irresponsible for eight hardline Republicans and 208 Democrats to throw our country into a constitutional crisis.

Lori Walsh:
What is your message to U.S. allies who are concerned about the work ceasing from the Armed Service Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and just the overall functioning of the US government in their time of need? What would you say to US allies?

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
I would say, and I've used this quote on your show before, so I hate to be a one note Johnny, but Winston Churchill said famously that you can always count on the Americans to do the right things once they have exhausted all other options. I think a corollary to that is America gets to the right place, but often in the most messiest of paths.

I'm going to tell our allies we're going to be there, and we're going to do right by Taiwan and by Israel and by Ukraine and by the other 210 freedom-loving countries in the world that look to us for leadership and who understand that there has never been a country in the history of the world to do more to lift the globe out of poverty and to expand freedom across the globe than the United States of America.

Last week was messy, and this week is messy, but it is just two weeks and please do not allow two weeks of chaos to disrupt what has been a beautiful 247 years. Messy though it has been, a 247-year commitment to those values.

We're going to get it right. It may take us a few more days, but we're going to get it right.

Lori Walsh:
Much of the opposition for Jim Jordan came from members of the Armed Service Committee or the Appropriations side. How did it feel for you to cast your vote for Jim Jordan?

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
We need to get to work, and Steve Scalise was the first nominee coming out of the Republican conference after Kevin McCarthy was irresponsibly deposed, thrown out, and I was supportive of Steve Scalise. Steve Scalise won the primary and then in essence, you'd go to the general and we needed to open up the House, and I was willing to support the conference nominee.

When Steve Scalise stepped aside, Jim Jordan won the vote, the primary, if you will, and I was willing to support the nominee to open up the House. I am getting increasingly frustrated with my colleagues who will argue that they needed to oppose Steve Scalise because he wasn't perfect, and they need to oppose Jim Jordan because he's not perfect. Let me be clear, there will be people who will oppose the fourth and the fifth and the sixth nominee.

This is our political environment right now. People think that if they holler and yell and are stubborn and intransigent, that they just get what they want, not what the common ground would suggest. I respect, of course, my colleagues who are appropriators, those are the folks who spend money, that they are concerned that Jim Jordan would cut government too much. I would tell them no, that he was the choice of the Republican conference. Of course, he is imperfect, but he doesn't hold the purse strings on his own.

There are 435 members of the House and collectively along with the Senate will need to decide what to spend. I think their opposition to Jim Jordan on those grounds is misplaced.

Lori Walsh:
Those are the facts. I am wondering how it felt. What are the emotions of that moment for you?

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
This is the third week we're rudderless. And that nobody takes orders from the speaker anymore. Again, in modern politics, the speaker, I mean, what could Kevin McCarthy do to me? Right? This is not hardball politics, but the soft power that comes from the speaker of the House is sizable.

They are the man or woman who comes to the microphone and like a head of state tries to find where the body is at and to try to be a clarion call to say, "Gang, here are our values, and here's tactically how I think we can proceed."

A good speaker of the House can be a compass that helps people find their way through these thorny paths. We have not had that and as a result, we are not getting our work done and it is unsettling, Lori, I have to tell you.

Then every one of these meetings, they are unsettling, and we are acutely aware of the fact that we're not getting the work done we need to get done, and so I guess I would just reiterate I'm sorry to South Dakota. We need to do better, and I hope we will.

Lori Walsh:
South Dakota Representative Dusty Johnson, you've taken a lot of time for us. We'll check in with you as this continues to unfold. We really appreciate hearing your voice today.

Rep. Dusty Johnson:
Absolutely. Thank you. Bye.

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.