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Dusty Johnson: Comments On SF Rally & Meat Supply Chain
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Jackie Hendry: South Dakota's US Congressman, Dusty Johnson, joins us next. He's been working to alleviate the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the meat supply chain, he joins us now by phone. Congressman Johnson, welcome back to In The Moment. Thanks for taking time for us today.

Dusty Johnson: Of course, Jackie. Any time for you guys. How many more dimensions of tough times are we going to get here? It's been kind of a crazy few months.

Jackie Hendry: Right. And I know sir, we originally scheduled you to focus on that work with the meat supply chain, but I'd be remiss to not ask you for your response to the calls for justice we're seeing in South Dakota and around the country. I know I saw over the weekend Senator Rounds put out a statement calling for justice for George Floyd. As far as I've seen so far, you have not issued a comment on social media that I've seen. Clue us in on your thoughts and your perspectives on what we're seeing right now.

Dusty Johnson: Yeah. I'm glad you're asking, because I do think this is a discussion we've got to have as a country, and I actually don't know that social media is all that conducive to it. I know that's the natural inclination as everybody goes to figure out what their 140 characters has to be, but this is something, frankly, I've dedicated a fair amount of time, even just in Congress to, and we can talk in specifics, but the real move toward social justice, toward ending racial discrimination, we're not going to get that done by a tweet. This requires a lot of work. It takes years of work that is often done away from the TV cameras and away from the crowds. It's real people who have to do the kind of blocking and tackling that are necessary to take the steps forward.

And George Floyd, his death was a terrible tragedy, and it should serve as another reminder to all of us that we are not where we need to be as a country. And I understand that the protest, peaceful protests can play a role in kind of advancing that conversation and focusing our attention, but obviously the violence doesn't. The violence is totally and entirely counterproductive toward us making the kind of progress we need to make.

Jackie Hendry: Tell us about the conversations, or what conversations are you having with black leaders in South Dakota?

Dusty Johnson: Yeah. And for me, I think that's the natural inclination for so many political leaders, right? "Ooh, there's a flare up, let's talk to people within the community," and that sort of seems like it's unfortunate. These should be conversations you're having on an ongoing basis. A man should not have to die in Minneapolis for us to have conversations about moving forward. And frankly, a lot of the attention nationally is now on discrimination against black Americans, and we should spend a ton of time talking about that.

But for me, I've been passionate about race relations vis-a-vis Native Americans in this state, and I've got the Ben Reifel Internship in my office that is set aside for people who care about tribal issues. Often, Native American students who want to further this so that they can be in our office learning how government can be helpful, and we can learn from them from their experiences. I've been the floor manager for the bill that provided much needed funding to historically black colleges and to tribal universities and colleges that benefit a number of places, like in South Dakota that are doing really good work educating a next generation of leaders.

And so I would tell you the conversations I've had in the last week, they are more emotional, they are more pointed than the ones that I have had over the course of the last decade, but I think they're more valuable because they build on the relationships that I've built over the last decade. I think the number one concern I'm hearing most from people is from leaders within whether it's ... well, I should just say generally people who want more social justice, their biggest concern is that they're hoping when the TV cameras and the radio reporters go home, and the protesters return to whatever they are going to be doing next, that we don't lose focus on the work that has to be done.

Jackie Hendry: So what are some of those concrete actions or ongoing conversations that you're looking to be a part of as far as the situation we're looking at? Because I think it is fair to say that to only focus when there's a flare up would be disingenuous. So what are your plans beyond that?

Dusty Johnson: Yeah. And this has been, as I said, a passion of mine for a long time. You go back to when I was chief of staff to Governor Daugaard and the work we did in the Public Safety Improvement Act. There are a lot of racial disparities within our criminal justice system. I think that criminal justice reform did a number of, I think, helpful things and trying to make sure that our system was better focused on rehabilitation, getting people well, making sure that they were not a threat to our communities. We do need to hold offenders accountable, we absolutely do, but there's a way to do that that improves public safety, and there's a way to do that that ultimately compromises it. And that was a big push.

And I still think as a country, South Dakota has done a pretty good job. Some people had called that effort one of the most comprehensive that has been done in the country in recent years. The federal government is behind that. About two years ago, we passed the First Step Act, which even by its name projects its modesty and its incrementalism, the First Step Act. We still have a ways to go with that. I think there's an opportunity for us to diversify our police force, and I actually feel like some of the violence has actually probably made it more difficult for us to go out and recruit people of color into our police departments and our highway patrols. But that is one proven technique to make sure that our law enforcement departments are more understanding of some of the challenges facing communities.

Jackie Hendry: Stemming off of your mention of working with issues related to Indian Country here in South Dakota, I know Governor Noem said in weeks past in conversations about the tribal checkpoints on a couple of reservations in our state that she sent some information to the state's congressional delegation. I'm wondering if you've had any conversations with the governor on this matter or your perspectives on that.

Dusty Johnson: Yeah. We have been in contact. Obviously it's an untenable situation. I don't know what the right legal answer is, Jackie. I'm no constitutional law expert. I have read a number of briefing memos, including one from the Congressional Research Service that I requested because I was curious about what the legal framework is, but I don't know what the right answer is. Frankly, there's some case law that kind of conflicts with other case law. To me, I just hope we can get to a point where everybody is able to realize the key value they want.

Harold Frazier wants to keep his people safe. That's not an unreasonable value for him. He understands that there are some situations on his reservation that make his people particularly susceptible to COVID-19. I think that's a legitimate observation on his part. I think the governor wants to make sure that people are able to travel on US highways, and if they're not stopping or if they're going to visit their own property, should they be unnecessarily detained? [inaudible 00:07:49] focusing on some different values.

So to me, I'm hopeful. Maybe this has got to go to a court case. I don't know that that in the long-term is all that helpful. Maybe it is, but to me, I do like the efforts I've seen from the governor the last couple of weeks, where she's trying to talk about finding some sort of solution with Harold Frazier and with Oglala Lakota with Pine Ridge, because I think that we are smart enough to be able to solve this problem while still recognizing the key values that everybody's bringing up.

Jackie Hendry: And related to COVID-19, as I said in our intro, we've noticed some of the weaknesses in our meat supply chain and in our food supply chain as a result of this pandemic. I know you've been working on some legislation related to that issue, update us on how you're approaching this particular challenge.

Dusty Johnson: Yeah. I've been a cosponsor of more than a dozen pieces of legislation dealing with the livestock industry over my 18 months in Congress, most of them introduced long before COVID-19 hit the shores. We've understood the weaknesses in the market long before coronavirus arrived. But I do think coronavirus brings some additional attention to the weaknesses. One bill that I am particularly excited about is just trying to make it easier for these small meat lockers in communities to process more and to have their product be able to be sold in more places.

It's sort of insult to injury, Jackie. They are willing to work a Saturday and Sunday not necessarily because they want to, but because they know that a producer has to have someplace to take that animal and the consumers need to have someplace to go get their meat. And so they're willing to work those extra shifts, work really long hours, but then the Federal Government comes and hits them with this massive bill for overtime for the federal inspectors that have to be there. And so my bill would just say, "Listen, let's have this be a cost share. If you're a small meat locker, 10 or fewer employees, we're going to pay 70% of those overtime costs, you pay 30%. It's still a cost share, but this gives you an opportunity. We're not going to disincentivize you for being open."

And it would also help medium-sized. They're really small, but between 10 and 500 employees, this doesn't help the Smithfields or the Tysons, because they already have, I think, an advantageous situation with regard to federal inspection, but this is going to help the little boys, and I think that's going to help. And then I also think we need to make sure that we're doing everything we can to support their efforts to keep their employees safe. I've been to Smithfield, I have looked at the process, the protocol that their employees have to pass through, the screening they have to get done to get into that plant. We have got to keep these workers safe.

Jackie Hendry: What's your impression of the rest of Congress's kind of response to this legislation that you're working on related to this issue?

Dusty Johnson: If they are located anywhere near cattle country, they really get it. They're all so vexed by this. They like the thought leadership we're bringing to it. They love my beef to school lunch bill. We have lots of locally-grown fruits and vegetables in school lunches, and studies have shown that students are more likely to eat them, students feel more of a connection, they better understand where their food comes from. It's been a big success. Well, we're not doing that with locally-grown beef and bison and pork, and there's an opportunity to do that.

When I talk to my colleagues in Congress about that bill, they get excited both on the right and on the left. There is sort of a broad coalition that can be brought together as people understand the value of some of this local sourcing. And one other one I would mention, there is, I think, an increased understanding on the part of my colleagues about why having four packers control 85% of the beef market does not create a very well-functioning marketplace, and that we have to look into some incentives or some data or some deregulation activities, just something that will make it easier for other people to break into this marketplace. Four packers, we have too much concentration.

Jackie Hendry: Congressman Johnson, in just about the final minute or so before we let you go, I just wanted to open the floor as far as any other COVID-19-related relief or any other projects you're working on in Congress. What can your constituents expect from you for the next period of time?

Dusty Johnson: Yeah, it's a lot of COVID-19, and we have seen staggering job losses. And Laurie and I have talked about that, and it seems like every time we talk, things have gotten worse than I expected that they would. And she does a nice job of sort of pushing me, "Well, you said that the Paycheck Protection Program was going to stem some of these job losses, what's going on?" I think there's still a place for a Congress that is focused and targeted and open to the idea of finding innovative ways to make sure that people can keep their jobs.

I don't love the idea of having them lose their jobs and then putting them on 12 different social safety net programs. People want to work, people want a connection to this job, and I think we're going to need to put more money into the Paycheck Protection Program. I think we're going to need to make sure that that system has the flexibility so that employers can bring people back. And I'm going to keep focused on that, and of course tomorrow's the primary election, so registered Republicans are going to get a say in whether or not I deserve another two years and I've been working hard and I sure would love to have an opportunity to keep working hard.

Jackie Hendry: My guest has been US Congressman Dusty Johnson, representing South Dakota. Congressman, thank you for visiting with us today, you're welcome back to In The Moment any time.

Dusty Johnson: Sounds good. Thanks, Jackie. Bye.