Bearing down on debt limit, SD Rep. Johnson, House Republicans seek spending deal

“We are at an inflection point,” Rep. Dusty Johnson said of the $31 trillion-plus federal debt. “Business as usual will not work. And it is time to get serious now.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson speaks following his re-election on Nov. 8, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the coming weeks, the debt ceiling song-and-dance will reach a crescendo in the halls of Congress, as the borrowing needed to keep the federal government running hurdles toward a statutory limit on the nation’s checkbook.

For South Dakota's U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, it’s another reminder of the unsustainable pace at which annual deficits have grown in Washington, as the nation currently sits more than $31 trillion in debt.

“In the last decade, we spent $3 trillion just on interest on the debt. No veteran got a new knee with that money. No hungry kid got a school lunch with that money,” Johnson told Forum News Service in an interview this week. “That was just interest on the debt. But in the next 10 years, we won't spend $3 trillion on the interest on the debt; we will spend $10 trillion.”

According to the Congressional Budget Office, a failure to raise or suspend the debt limit would likely exhaust the government’s ability to issue additional debt between July and September this year.

The result would be economic mayhem, though lawmakers have sought to assure the nation’s financial institutions that the worst will be avoided.


But Johnson and the rest of the House Republicans don’t want to simply raise the credit limit with no strings attached, as Congress has many times over the past decade.

For the House Speaker Kevin McCarthy-led caucus that has made fiscal responsibility one of its central messages during the first few months of its majority rule, the incoming standoff with the Senate and White House over the debt ceiling could become an early defining moment.

This past week, McCarthy unveiled an olive branch of sorts: a set of policies designed to curtail federal spending in exchange for raising the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling.

His major demands include bringing next year’s federal discretionary spending down to 2022 levels — a move that would require cutting $131 billion from the 2023 discretionary budget — and limiting annual budget growth to 1%.

Entering the final days of the current Congress, a $1.7 trillion appropriations bill funding major government operations until next year is on its way to President Joe Biden's desk.

McCarthy also hopes to repeal several provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year, as well as implement provisions similar to the Johnson-led work requirements on federal nutritional assistance programs.

President Joe Biden and other Democratic Party leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, say the plan is a non-starter, instead demanding a clean raise of the debt limit.

“That’s the MAGA economic agenda: spending cuts for working and middle-class folks,” Biden said during remarks in Maryland on April 19. “It’s not about fiscal discipline, it’s about cutting benefits for folks they don’t seem to care much about.”

Johnson sees that posture as irresponsible.


“If we don't do something, our nation will default on our debts. That crisis cannot be avoided unless we cut a deal,” he said. “And you can't cut a deal if you don't have a willing partner on the other side of the table.”

Despite the media frenzy already underway, Sen. Mike Rounds said he expects the issue to be “resolved in a responsible manner.”

“While no one wants to see a default that could jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States, the debt limit provides an opportunity to consider solutions to address the challenges our country faces with out-of-control spending and a rising national debt,” Rounds said in a statement to Forum News Service on April 21.

GOP package includes expanding work requirements, among other changes

On April 19, McCarthy put the specifics of his caucus’s demands into a 320-page bill he told Capitol Hill reporters he hopes to pass this coming week.

The expected top-line savings of $4.5 trillion over the next decade come from a repeal of certain clean energy credits, a return of unobligated coronavirus funds, a rollback of IRS hirings and a tightening of federal discretionary spending.

Johnson was clear that this limit on the growth of discretionary budgets would not include mandatory spending categories like Social Security and Medicare.

While House Republicans say the cuts required to meet the return to 2022 levels will focus on domestic and foreign aid programs rather than defense spending, House Democrats say they doubt the inherent math.

“For weeks, I have heard my colleagues claim defense, Veterans health care, and border security funding would not be subject to their caps. This reckless bill does not give that assurance,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, wrote in a statement. “It either puts defense or Veterans funding on the chopping block or cuts other critical government programs by more than 22 percent—a cut far lower than the 2022 level.”


One strategy for potentially tightening the belt in domestic programs in the McCarthy plan is an adaptation of a Johnson-led effort to alter work requirements in the federal nutritional assistance program known as SNAP.

Under the program’s current rules, most able-bodied beneficiaries ages 18 to 49 are subject to a requirement that they spend at least 20 hours a week working, looking for a job or being involved in similar work-related activities. A proposal from Johnson would have raised that age to 65, an idea Democrats have called “extreme,” which the representative took issue with.

In the debt ceiling plan, the work requirements instead end after age 55.

“People who say that pregnant women will be kept kicked off food stamps are lying. People who say that people with young children will be kicked off are lying. People who say that the disabled or seniors will be kicked off food stamps are lying,” Johnson said. “Those things are categorically untrue. They're an attempt to fearmonger around SNAP work requirements that are already in law.”

Johnson also noted the proposal keeps in place each state’s flexibility to deal with cases that don’t fit into already exempt categories, though it does limit the ability for states to carry over those exemptions each year.

Another part of the bill supported by Johnson is the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny,” or REINS Act, which looks to shore up congressional oversight of the rules handed down by federal agencies, especially those that would have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more.

“I have decried executive branch overreach certainly under President Biden but also under President Trump,” Johnson said. “The Constitution does not envision an all-powerful executive branch that is able to govern our country via executive order or agency rules.”

The McCarthy proposal is not the only debt ceiling option, as the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, where Johnson serves as one of four vice chairs, released a general plan on April 19 to suspend the debt ceiling until the end of the year and institute more moderate limits on discretionary budgets moving forward.


Either way, Johnson made clear that passing a no-strings-attached raise or suspension of the debt limit would be a missed opportunity.

“We are at an inflection point,” he said. “Business as usual will not work. And it is time to get serious now.”

“We have to think about what our priorities are, especially considering the threats we face around the world,” South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
What To Read Next
Get Local