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“The reality is, the last eight substantial fiscal reforms we’ve had in this country have come about because of debt ceiling negotiations,” Rep. Dusty Johnson says.
“The reality is, the last eight substantial fiscal reforms we’ve had in this country have come about because of debt ceiling negotiations,” Rep. Dusty Johnson says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Dusty Johnson is a busy man. The new chair of the Republican Main Street Caucus and vice chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus has positioned himself to be one of the GOP’s biggest wheeler-dealers on the Hill. 

But the South Dakotan doesn’t think he’ll have much more power to flex than any other House Republican, reasoning that “everyone has a veto” among his colleagues.

Whether that’s false modesty from the self-effacing father of three or an honest assessment from, according to his peers, a straight shooter, largely depends on what backroom machinations emerge on the debt limit and federal budget. 

Johnson sat down with Roll Call on the same day the Biden administration released its budget proposal to discuss his hopes for the year, defend the GOP’s decision to tie debt ceiling negotiations to spending talks and defame the delicious waffle. 

This interview has been condensed.

Q: Of the GOP’s “five families,” you are the chair of the Republican Main Street Caucus. You’re also a vice chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. You’re a member of the Republican Study Committee. Have you ever thought about joining the other two — the Republican Governance Group and Freedom Caucus — just so you can complete the set?  

A: The biggest shortage we have in this town is time. If I’m going to be a part of a group, I really want to make sure I invest enough time to be a valuable part of it. So, no, I’m not really in a position of joining any more groups right now.

Q: More seriously, there’s been a lot of attention in the press to the GOP’s slim House majority and the potential for the Freedom Caucus to play the spoiler. But dealmakers like you, in theory, could wield even more power and dominate negotiations on big legislation with Democrats or the Senate. In practice, will that happen?

A: Nobody’s going to control the House. The idea that everybody has to get their minds wrapped around [is] the fact that everyone has a veto. I mean, we have a tendency to focus on how the Freedom Caucus could say no to things, but so could any of the other five families. And that’s why I think cooperation and coordination are going to be really key.

Q: The Democratic position is that the debt ceiling should be separate from budget negotiations. Is using the debt ceiling as leverage inviting the chaos that Main Street Republicans have said we should avoid?

A: This is a new opinion for Joe Biden. In 2011, as vice president, he cut the last major Budget Control Act mechanism that came about because of debt ceiling negotiations. In 2004, he voted against raising the debt ceiling because it did not have enough fiscal reforms as part of it. So this is a brand new opinion for the president — he’s been in D.C. a long time, but this is something he has apparently had a change of heart about.

The reality is, the last eight substantial fiscal reforms we’ve had in this country have come about because of debt ceiling negotiations. And I think the president’s refusal to come to the table, as this town has done around this issue for decades, is what’s creating chaos.

To be clear, we absolutely should not default on the debt. I would also tell you, the Democrats and the Republicans alike heard yesterday from the CBO director that we are in a much, much worse fiscal shape than most Americans realize.

We have been talking about the problem with the debt for so long that I think a lot of people have this assumption that we’re in about the same level of peril that we were five or 10 or 15 years ago, because the rhetoric has largely been the same for 15 years. People who are not willing to use every meaningful conversation to address that issue are doing this country a disservice.

Q: If the problem is far more significant than it was 15 years ago, should everything, like Social Security and Medicare, defense spending or tax increases, be on the table? 

A: Well, the problem is so dire, we do need real and serious progress. We’re clearly not going to solve the whole problem over the debt ceiling negotiation. So, what we want to do is move in the right direction.

I think there’s a season for everything. Right now, doing something like returning fiscal year 2024 nondefense, discretionary [spending] to fiscal year 2022 levels — which is hardly draconian — that’s a pretty commonsense approach.

We do need to be willing to look at a comprehensive list of solutions. Some of them will ripen at different times. We also need to fund the government next year — that deadline is Sept. 30, may stretch into Dec. 31 — and so there will be a new set of budget decisions that will be ripe at that time.

It’s easy for me to imagine that we can find some waste, fraud, and abuse within a $900 billion defense budget — I’m willing to look at spending those dollars smarter. I also understand that it’s an incredibly dangerous time in this world and that we wouldn’t want to be looking for dramatic cuts to defense at this time.

Q: Let’s end on a more positive note —

A: Fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns, that’s not positive? [Laughs]

Q: You’re occupying a kind of singular role among the dealmakers in Congress. Where are you hopeful to pass some legislation?

A: I’m on the Select Committee on [Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party] and it’s been remarkable how truly bipartisan the work on that committee has been so far. There are major challenges that the Chinese Communist Party [presents], but I think you’re going to see serious and substantial legislation that this Congress is going to act on related to the CCP.

A lot of the legislative victories of the House already so far this year have come about on a bipartisan basis. And that’s something that probably hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, because the debt ceiling is such an existential issue that I understand why people’s gaze would be directed there.

The Farm Bill, NDAA, FISA reauthorization — none of those bills will get passed on single-party votes.

Quick Hits

What’s the last book that you read?

With my 11-year-old, the seventh Harry Potter. On my own, “Winesburg, Ohio.” And “The Hundred-Year Marathon” for work. 

What is your least popular opinion?

I think lots of foods are overrated. Like juice, waffles [or] a baked potato bar? They’re not that good.

What is one thing your friends know about you that your constituents might not?

How much food I eat. It’s a lot. It’s like 2,000 calories of cookies a day on top of four meals.

What’s one place in South Dakota that everyone should visit that isn’t Mount Rushmore?

Custer State Park.

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