Rep. Dusty Johnson: Changes to Social Security, Medicare will be needed

South Dakota's congressman fields wide range of questions at town hall meeting with seniors

By Joshua Haiar

South Dakota Searchlight

Posted 3/17/24

SIOUX FALLS — Three changes should be considered to prevent Social Security and Medicare from running out of money, Republican U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson said Thursday during a town hall meeting …

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Rep. Dusty Johnson: Changes to Social Security, Medicare will be needed

South Dakota's congressman fields wide range of questions at town hall meeting with seniors


SIOUX FALLS — Three changes should be considered to prevent Social Security and Medicare from running out of money, Republican U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson said Thursday during a town hall meeting at a retirement community. 

Those changes are raising the age when future recipients can start getting benefits, raising the maximum amount of income that’s taxed for Social Security and Medicare, and reducing future benefits for people who made higher incomes.

“If you’re willing to be open-minded about how to turn those three dials in different ways, we can solve this problem,” he told the crowd of seniors at Dow Rummel Village.

The Social Security program collects payroll taxes from workers and pays benefits to retirees, and to those who can’t work due to a disability. Medicare is a federal health care insurance program for people 65 and over, and the disabled.

The Social Security Trustees Report indicates the program’s funds will be depleted by 2034, reducing benefits to 78% of current levels due to a declining worker-to-beneficiary ratio. Similarly, Medicare’s escalating costs threaten its sustainability.

“Most politicians won’t tell you what I just told you,” Johnson said. “Both of the guys running for president right now are saying they refuse to talk about doing those things, and I get it, that’s the politically popular thing to say, but the plans that they have laid out, which is to change nothing, ever, guarantees — guarantees — insolvency of both Medicare and Social Security within the decade. Failing to act is a guaranteed failure, and I just can’t accept that.” 

Johnson added that nobody in Congress wants to cut Social Security benefits for people receiving them today or anyone likely to receive them in the next 10 years. 

“I think a lot of the controversy is manufactured,” he said. 

Johnson, 47, followed that up by adding he’d be comfortable raising the age when people start receiving benefits for his generation.

“I will likely live 20 years longer than my grandparents; I am not offended by the idea that I might need to work 18 more months to secure 18 more years of retirement,” Johnson said. “That’s the kind of adjustment to the math that can make a lot of actuarial problems go away.” 

Johnson has served as the state’s lone U.S. representative since 2019 and is up for reelection in November.

The town hall meeting was attended by about 100 residents. Topics ranged from concerns about the nation’s southern border to school shootings.

Border security

“Legal immigration is a beautiful thing,” Johnson said. “Legal immigration is the secret sauce that has powered American exceptionalism for 247 years. So anything I might say that is negative about illegal immigration, I’m not trying to run down legal immigration, which is a blessing to our country.” 

Johnson said reinstating the “Remain in Mexico” policy would reduce illegal border crossings by up to 80%. He said that was the reduction when it was enacted five years ago. 

“It was like flipping a switch,” he said. 

The Remain in Mexico policy, initiated under former president and current candidate Donald Trump’s administration, required asylum seekers at the border to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court proceedings.

Johnson said that there are things Biden should do differently, but he is frustrated to hear people calling for a president to act like “a dictator.”

“Whether Republican or Democrat, Congress should be acting, rather than us constantly looking to presidents to use their pen to run this country with executive order,” Johnson said.

He’s optimistic Congress will pass some border legislation. 

“If we don’t get something done within the next four weeks, and I think there’s a chance we will, shame on us,” Johnson said.

A town hall attendee asked about the bipartisan immigration deal that failed in the Senate last month after Trump came out against it.

The bill would have raised the bar for migrants claiming asylum, clarified the White House’s use of parole authority to temporarily grant protections to migrants, created a procedure to shut down the border at particularly active times, and ended the practice of allowing migrants to live in the United States while they wait for their cases to be heard by an immigration judge.

Johnson said the bill lacked some key provisions, such as fully reinstating the Remain in Mexico policy and building more wall along the border.

“And so, it really got trapped into this negative feedback loop where people really struggled to see whether or not that plan was good enough,” he said. “And as a result, it’s not going anywhere, we need a different plan, and we do need a plan.” 

Ukraine aid

Johnson said for only 5% of the U.S. military’s annual budget, and with no American soldiers on the ground, the U.S. can help Ukraine hold back Russia’s invasion.

However, he said that as long as the U.S. southern border is in crisis, it will remain difficult to get enough Republican members to support further Ukraine aid. 

“People were rightly concerned about just blank checks rolling out of the federal treasury to another country,” he said. “But what I still think we should be able to get a broad, bipartisan consensus in this country on is the idea of providing lethal aid, bullets, munitions, missiles to people who are trying to defend their own country from a literal invader.” 

The Senate has passed a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, with South Dakota Republican Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds both voting yes. Johnson said he hopes the House will vote on it.

“Anybody who thinks Vladimir Putin is a good guy is profoundly, deeply, dangerously wrong,” he said. “Vladimir Putin means our country ill will.” 

Vote against infrastructure bill

As of May 2023, the $13 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law had allocated $1.5 billion in funding to South Dakota with over 215 projects identified for funding. 

Johnson voted no, but not because he thinks infrastructure is unimportant.

“Rather than continue our country’s responsible history of paying for infrastructure, we set up a fiscal cliff, whereby we scooped up a bunch of unspent COVID dollars, that was fine, but rather than use those one-time dollars for one-time things, we put them into the base of infrastructure funding,” Johnson said.

School shootings

When asked how he is helping to prevent school shootings, Johnson said there is something profoundly wrong with the country. He said the family unit and churches are weakened institutions. 

“I know that when we see 12 people killed, in any venue, sporting venue, music venue, education, it hollows us out,” he said. “And I do want to care about those 12 people, those are lives that should have never been lost. But I’m starting to tell you, the carnage is bigger than that.”

Johnson pointed to the combined toll of fatal drug overdoses and suicides, which he estimated at 200,000. The U.S. had 109,000 drug overdose deaths and 50,000 suicides in 2022. 

“The carnage is not 12, the carnage is 200,000, year in and year out,” he said. “And by all means, let’s talk about solutions that impact the 12, but let’s also make sure that we’re talking about solutions that save the 200,000.”

In 2023, school shootings in the U.S. led to 21 deaths, of which 15 were students and six were employees. Additionally, 42 people were injured. Throughout the year, there were 38 school shootings. 

Johnson said the nation needs to invest more federal funding into substance abuse and mental health programs.


Johnson recently voted yes when the House passed a bill that would require the Chinese owner of TikTok to sell the American version of the app or face a national ban.

He said there is a stark contrast between the content available on TikTok in China versus that accessible to American audiences, particularly children. 

Johnson said Chinese students “are fed content that is virtuous; about, ‘you should be doing your homework, you should be eating well, you should be getting exercise.’ American kids are fed content about why they should distrust their government.” 

Johnson said the app is controlled by a foreign adversary. 

“We would never have allowed the Soviets to purchase the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Wall Street Journal, WNAX Radio, and the CBS Evening News,” he said. “We would not have allowed it.”

Get things done

Johnson said the narrative that Congress accomplishes nothing is false, and driven by media that emphasizes conflict over day-to-day governing. 

“We get that, it’s conflict that makes for a good story,” Johnson said. “But every single week when we’re out in Washington, D.C., there are bills that pass out of the U.S. House with a couple of hundred Democratic votes and a couple of hundred Republican votes.”

Johnson added that he thinks Congress should accomplish more, but wanted to make the point so the residents “don’t lose too much faith in our government.” 

He said politicians are uncomfortable criticizing their party, but in certain cases it’s necessary.

“I think getting rid of the speaker of the House, allowing eight people of my party to work with everybody in the other party to throw out the Republican speaker, was a big mistake,” he said. “I voted against it. I think it put us in a terrible disarray. I think it caused us to stop some of the momentum we were making on the kinds of issues we’ve all been talking about.”