SD Congressman Dusty Johnson laments lack of civility in modern politics
Congressman discusses divide among lawmakers, citizens at Rotary meeting
MITCHELL — The mood Thursday at the Rotary Club of Mitchell meeting was perfectly civil, with members exchanging questions with featured speaker and former club member, Mitchell resident Rep. Dusty Johnson.
There was dialog, earnest listening and more than a few jokes that brought laughter from the noon crowd.
If only it could always be that way, Johnson told the crowd at Blarney’s Sportsbar & Grill.
“Most members of Congress are pretty normal,” Johnson said. “They are interested in getting things done. My biggest problem is the United States House is less than the sum of its parts, which is the reverse of the old adage. I think that is in part because modern politics rewards playing to the lowest common denominator.”
Johnson (R-S.D.) spoke and conducted a question-answer session for the local organization. Much of that back-and-forth revolved around the ongoing polarization of political positions and discussion that has made it difficult for the average citizen to engage in an exchange of diverse ideas without the conversation devolving into a shouting match.
That’s an appropriate concern to have in this day and age, Johnson said, with cable news constantly pitting lawmakers against lawmaker and their supporters against supporters, an apparent belief that there can be no compromise or middle ground on hot button issues and politicians who themselves often treat colleagues across the aisle as enemies instead of coworkers.
“What is the sense of camaraderie in the House? Last year it was exceptionally poor, and it was not all that good my first two years. But it wasn’t unusual to be on the House floor and see a group of five or six Republicans and Democrats talking to one another,” Johnson said. “That’s been pretty rare the last year. For a variety of reasons, there’s a shocking lack of collegial respect or esprit de corps.”
It extends to personal conversation about politics, as well. Whether it is a family disagreement over a holiday dinner or national lawmakers butting heads in committee meetings, the path to more civil and productive discourse in politics begins with the individual. Johnson said that includes himself as well as everyone in attendance Thursday.
“We have all gotten so tight that we’ve retreated from that public square,” Johnson said. “We have some people who are calm, logical and thoughtful. We get some of that, but we also get people who just want to yell. If we let crazy uncle Larry dominate the Facebook discussion, then shame on us.”
Partisan politics don’t have to be a battlezone, he said. There are points to be taken from both sides, which is what he prefers to do whenever possible.
“Nobody has a corner on wisdom,” Johnson said. “And I don’t understand why we ‘normals’ won’t do a better job of saying that there has to be a better way.”
Johnson also spent a portion of the hour answering questions on a variety of topics from the audience, including his position on term limits. He said he is, in general, in favor of term limits provided they don’t hinder the elected official in their effectiveness to do their job.
Term limits need to be balanced to make sure an official doesn’t serve for a half-century, but at the same time need to be long enough that the elected officials in office don't end up at a disadvantage to other Washington, D.C., insiders who can cultivate decades of experience and connections.
“If what you’re looking to do is strengthen the lobbying corps and the presidency, that’s the right approach. But I think the American presidency is too strong as it is. We’ve migrated a tremendous amount of power away from the legislative branch, and there are no term limits for bureaucrats and lobbyists. So I think you need House and Senate members who really know what they’re talking about and can push back.”
Overall, he thinks voters do a good job making sure a combination of fresh blood and experience are serving.
“The voters really take care of this,” Johnson said.
He was asked about his future political ambitions, with one member of the audience asking when he planned to run for the presidency.
Johnson did not hesitate with his answer, and threw in a baseball metaphor.
“Never,” he said to a round of laughter. “I’m a really good AAA pitcher, but I don’t have the fastball to make the Major Leagues, and there is no shame in that. The reality is we’d have a lot of better politicians if they wouldn’t focus on getting someplace they shouldn’t be and focus more on how do I get into the game tonight and win?”
A followup question asked him if he thought the same about the possibility of running for South Dakota governor sometime in the future.
He sidestepped the question with another joke.
“Is South Dakota governor a AAA squad or a Major League squad?” Johnson asked, bringing another round of laughter.
Johnson said political life in Washington, D.C., has its ups and downs. Flying back and forth when he often doesn’t know exactly what day he will be returning to Mitchell provides plenty of stress for him and his family. Trying to build bridges on important issues can be like pulling teeth. And there will always be plain, old-fashioned disagreements.
He knows the work is hard, but worth it. And he plans to do it to the best of his ability as long as he can.
“Next year (in Washington, D.C.) is probably going to be more difficult than last year, but that does not make me want to run away. It makes me more committed to the idea that I have to be there,” Johnson said. “Maybe we’re all screwed. Maybe this country is bound for the dustbin of history. But I don’t think that’s true. I think our best days are ahead and the American experiment will continue in a good way. But if it goes in the ditch, it will be over my dead body.”