Dusty Johnson the unlikely lawmaker spearheading shipping reform

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson speaks with Forum News Service about his bipartisan act to unfetter clogged ports that have led to supply chain dilemmas for South Dakotans, from a dairy near the Minnesota border to a children's bicycle manufacturer in Rapid City.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., speaks during a trade and tariff forum on Aug. 21 during Dakotafest in Mitchell.
Matt Gade / Republic
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The congressman from a landlocked state and the home of the Corn Palace may not seem the likeliest candidate to untangle snarled shipping ports.

But that's if you don't know South Dakota agriculture.

"Sixty percent of South Dakota soybeans are exported," U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., told Forum News Service on Tuesday, March 29.

It's the same story for the state's corn, soybeans, beef, and dairy. They eventually end up in container ships, crossing the ocean, and landing in foreign markets.

"Because people around the world want it," Johnson said.


But the pandemic brought a standstill — or at least a great slowdown — to overseas shipping. Johnson says more than half of foreign-flagged container ships last year ran empty on return trips home from American ports last year.

"They preferred to haul back air rather than American ag products," Johnson said.

And that hurt South Dakotans. A dairy in Milbank, South Dakota, had 2 million pounds of lactose rot after they couldn't get their product on a boat. The makers of Strider Bikes in Rapid City lacked easy access to foreign-made parts.

Roughly a year ago, Johnson teamed up with northern California Democratic congressman John Garamendi to co-author the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, to de-congest the ports and bring needed accountability.

Now, after the bill's passage out of the House of Representatives and a comparable bill gaining steam in the Senate, it appears that a shipping bill may just land on President Joe Biden's desk very soon.

"Victory is likely," Johnson said Tuesday. The GOP congressman said that while it took a year to lay the land, "punching (the bill) into the end zone might not take very long."

It's not exactly clear who will be holding the ball if and when the touchdown comes.

The House passed the Johnson-Garamendi bill on a standalone vote in December. The measure also was added to the China competition measure that passed in February, and Johnson also is working to add the measure to a Coast Guard bill.


A very similar bill co-sponsored by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Dakota's Sen. John Thune, also passed the Senate Commerce Committee last week. Johnson said he's had "dozens of conversations, particularly with team Thune" and he personally spoke with Klobuchar about the bill's passage.

While the bills differ in key ways, both measures create a shipping exchange registry. On the House side, Johnson said their Shipping Reform Act also requires minimum service standards, allowing third parties to file complaints. Johnson said the bill creates "basic rules of the road" and protects foreign shippers who would discriminate against American shippers.

Moreover, the bill is coming together in a bipartisan way, with a Republican congressman from the heartland and a California Democrat.

"This is the largest reform of our nation's shipping in a generation," Johnson said. "And it's being done with relatively little national fanfare."

The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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