Johanns reflects on his term in the U.S. Senate and three decades in politics

Sen. Mike Johanns delivers his farewell speech to the U.S. Senate. (photo courtesy CSPAN)
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December 31, 2014 - 6:45am

Mike Johanns is leaving the Senate after one term and is retiring from elected office after a 32-year career. He started as a Democrat, but was a Republican most of the time. He started as a Lancaster County commissioner in 1983, then was a Lincoln City Council member, mayor of Lincoln, governor of Nebraska, secretary of agriculture and finally U.S. senator.

In his Dec. 9 farewell speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate, Johanns concluded by saying that “though confidence in our nation’s ability to solve problems may be shaken, I still believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Even here, in Washington, D.C.” He also showed emotion when talking about calling the families of Nebraska soldiers killed in combat. We talked with Johanns the day after his farewell speech.

Stephanie and Mike Johanns (Johanns/Senate photo)


Johanns and staff writing notes to members of the Armed Forces (Johanns/Senate photo)


Johanns speaking as secretary of agriculture in 2006 (USDA photo)


Johanns as Lincoln mayor in the 1990s (courtesy photo)



Mike Johanns/U.S. Senate web site

Mike Johanns tribute on the Senate floor, with comments from Johanns and colleagues (from C-SPAN)

"Nebraska's Senate Race: Johanns vs Kleeb" - 2008 NET Television documentary profiling candidates Mike Johanns and Scott Kleeb, and previewing the Senate race.

MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: You were a little emotional during your farewell speech on the Senate floor. Is leaving harder than you expected?

SEN. MIKE JOHANNS: You know, it wasn’t so much the leaving. It was when I reached that point in my comments I was thinking about the families of fallen men and women in uniform, and even now as I talk about it, it’s just so hard. I would always call the spouse or the mom or the dad and talk to them about their loss. I think about it. I pray for those people every day because there’s just nothing, nothing tougher than that. So, when I got to that part of my comments a lot of memories came back, and it’s just very, very difficult to talk to a family that’s lost a young person in battle. It’s just very, very difficult.

TOBIAS: Let’s talk about your term in the U.S. Senate and what do you feel you’ve accomplished?

JOHANNS: We came here with an experienced staff. I had been here as secretary of agriculture, so we really were able to hit the ground running. We didn’t have to ask anybody, “how do you do this and that.” We jumped right in. So it was my legislation, for example, that defunded ACORN with over 90 votes, which was incredible. That had been tried a number of times and we just hit it at the right time, and Democrats and Republicans took the money away from ACORN. Really, the only successful attempt to repeal part of Obamacare came in my 1099 legislation. We had to get seven different votes on it. We just kept fighting for it, and then finally I got over 80 votes; again, Democrats and Republicans supported that. I sat on the Ag Committee and, gosh, we worked for two years but we finally got a farm bill done and got enough votes in the House and the Senate to get it completed and the president signed it, so a major, major accomplishment for a state like ours where our number one industry is agriculture. I’ve got a number of banking issues. I’ve sat on the Banking Committee while I’ve been here and, fingers crossed, we think we’re going to get them across the finish line before I leave. We’re in the last days of the legislative session but we’ve been able to keep some things cued up and like I said, I’ve got my fingers crossed. But I think we’ll get a number of things done that might have looked pretty dead just a couple of weeks ago. So I just felt good about what we’ve done. We’ve also done tremendous amount of constituent work. I said six years ago, I want to have the best constituent service in the Senate and I think we did. We helped a lot of veterans and senior citizens with Medicare and Social Security and a whole host of issues. They’re kind of the unsung heroes in my office. They don’t get much attention but they’re out there every day just grinding away and making sure that the phone is answered, the mail is answered, people are helped who have problems and they just did great work.

TOBIAS: What’s the unfinished business? What do feel like you didn’t get done during your term?

JOHANNS: This is a global picture but it’s real. I spent a lot of time as a member of a group of eight senators, Republicans and Democrats, trying to come up with the right formula to reduce spending and get the deficit under control. I think we made progress and I think a lot of our ideas will eventually be implemented, but in the last two or three years Harry Reid, the majority leader, basically pushed the pause button and it was just hard to get things to the floor. It was hard to get things voted on. So there’s just so much work to be done there. Some may say, “well Mike, the deficit is better.” Well, if you can call a half a trillion dollar deficit better than a trillion, I guess it’s better, but that’s still awful and it’s still a terrible situation for not only my generation but the next generation and the next generation. So I’d put that really right at the top of the list. We’ve got to come to grips with the way the federal government manages its budget. It’s not going to work. It’s not a sustainable economic plan.

TOBIAS: Is this some of what you were talking about in your farewell speech when you made a reference to an “absence of will to address issues of paramount importance to our country?”

JOHANNS: That’s exactly what I had in mind. There will be a day it has to be addressed. This is not a sustainable economic plan. It just simply is not. No economist is going to argue that we can run deficits even at this level and have it work over any period of time. The other thing I would say, we’re in kind of a lull now. I really do believe that you’re going to see trillion dollar deficits return. I hate to say that because that’s such a horrific problem but having said that I think its unavoidable. You know, my generation is retiring and we’re going on Medicare, Social Security. The reality is there’s just a lot of us. We’re the baby boomers and that will put a tremendous stress economically, so I just think there’s some really hard decisions. I think we’ve got to be honest with people about what we’re facing and try to deal with them. When I said that in my comments yesterday, that’s exactly what I had in mind.

TOBIAS: There are frequent complaints about bureaucracy and how Washington’s broken. First, as secretary of agriculture and then a U.S. senator you’ve been part of this often criticized entity, the federal government, for 10 years. Is it that broken?

JOHANNS: What I say to people is we need to be very thoughtful about federalizing solutions to our problems because the federal government does tend to be huge and bureaucratic, and so trying to solve something like healthcare delivery and health insurance issues, etc., at a federal level is very, very challenging. Unfortunately what we tend to see is a lot of waste, a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of regulation, and it’s stifling on the economy. So, in that respect, very definitely. I think we’ve defined a federal government that’s just too large and the tendency, and we all have this tendency, some issue pops up and we say “let’s solve it at the federal level,” and we don’t stop to think about the good work that’s happening in state governments all across the United States, and often times these problems are best solved at the local level. So, yes, in that respect, federal government’s getting too big, too wasteful and too bureaucratic.

TOBIAS: We also frequently talk about polarization and partisan politics in Congress. How bad is that and has that changed during your six years in the Senate?

JOHANNS: It just seems to get more and more intense year after year. The campaigns are just very, very difficult. If you happen to end up in a race for a Senate seat, that the seat is targeted if you will where it’s kind of a coin toss as to whether a Republican can win that seat or a Democrat, strap yourself in. You’re in for an ugly experience. They’ll be massive amounts of money poured into the state, the advertising will be just very intense and so that’s polarizing. It’s very difficult to come back in January after the election and say, “all is forgotten, let’s shake hands and start working together.” It’s very difficult and I’ve seen that. So from that standpoint the races get tougher, they get more expensive and they get more polarizing and it makes it very hard to come in then and put it all aside and solve problems, and unfortunately every other year we’re in a campaign cycle in Washington. You’ve got a third of the Senate, you’ve got all of the House, every four years you’ve got a presidential race, and here’s what I would say. The reward for me was always the ability to do the job whether it was the county commissioner job or mayor or governor or whatever. That was the reward. The campaigns were always what you got through because you wanted to do the job. But unfortunately in Washington the campaigns never stop. They never stop, you know? One party is in power and they’re fighting to stay in power and the other party that’s out of power is fighting to get back in power and it just never stops. We just need to spend more time governing and that’s what I believe people want us to do, less time on the politics and more time on the governing.

TOBIAS: So, is there a way to change that?

JOHANNS: It’s hard to change because people have certain constitutional rights to campaign and spend money for candidates and do those things. So it’s hard to change. The only way you can change it is when you do come back here in January you say to yourself, “look, I’m going to ignore party lines and I’m going to work across the aisle and we’re going to try to solve problems.” There are members here that do that. That’s exactly what they want to do so. But yes, it’s getting tougher. No doubt about it, the campaigns are just tougher and tougher and tougher.

TOBIAS: So, looking at this in a broader way, talk about how the political landscape, good or bad, has changed since you first took office as a Lancaster County commissioner in 1983.

JOHANNS: I'll tell you a perfect story to describe that. I was not expected to win that race. I was running against a 12-year incumbent, a guy by the name of Bob Colin. It was a hard fought race and in the end he lost. I know it was hard for him. He had been in county government for 12 years. I think that the election before he had run unopposed. Bob became a friend of mine. We ran a spirited race but we did so in a way that dealt with issues and I actually talked to him many, many times before he passed away. His son I got to know, and one of the first supporters in just about any campaign I would run would be his son. It always meant a lot to me; he would financially support me. I’d stop out at his place of business and through the years I thought about that many, many times. Unfortunately, that’s changed a lot. The campaigns are tougher and more miserable and like I said, it just kind of goes on and on. I just wonder under today’s circumstances whether a candidate will be able to tell you that that’s what happened in their life, and yet that’s what I experienced. Like I said it always meant a tremendous amount to me.

TOBIAS: So county board, city council, mayor, governor, secretary of agriculture, U.S. Senate, 32 years in public office. Now, other than cancelling Halloween for the blizzard of ’97 as mayor of Lincoln, what do you hope people will remember you for in these decades in office?

JOHANNS: I hope people just remember me as a hard worker, somebody who always had an open door policy. Somebody who did put the politics aside after the election and focused on representing all the people. I hope people realize and understand that when somebody called me in my Senate office and said, “Mike I need your help,” the last thing I thought about was what party they belong to. It was completely unimportant to me at that point. My role and the role of the people that worked for me, the group we called Team Johanns, was to help that person. It made no difference whatsoever whether they were Republican, Democrat or Independent or had never registered to vote. So those are the kinds of things that I hope I’m remembered for. I can certainly mention a lot of things that we did and needless to say, I’m happy about those things and proud we were able to get them done, but I just hope people remember me as somebody who worked hard and wanted to help them.

TOBIAS: And will you ever shake the Halloween cancelation?

JOHANNS: Never (laughs). You know, I’ll always be remembered as that mayor who postponed Halloween, cancelled Halloween. Even today Halloween comes around and I get phone calls and e-mails from people. It’s quite the deal.

TOBIAS: Is your political career over now?

JOHANNS: You know, I’m not going to run for office. I’ve run for office many, many times. You never know what I might be asked to do in the state or at the national level. Obviously, I have a desire to serve and do those things, and so I wouldn’t completely close the door to that kind of possibility. But having said that, we’re really looking forward to kind of a new chapter and so there are no more campaigns being planned.

TOBIAS: What’s in that new chapter for you and your wife, Stephanie?

JOHANNS: As soon as we can wrap up this session and it looks like that will, hopefully, happen in the next few days, then that will be a time for us to kind of finish packing up, getting the offices cleared out and closing the offices down. Then we’re going to sit down and look at what possibilities are out there. I’ve been able to talk to people. I haven’t been able to accept any, or to even review any offers. So I’ve got a lot of work to do after the first of the year but we’ll start putting that together right after the first of the year and make some decisions.

TOBIAS: Senator Mike Johanns, thanks for your time.

JOHANNS: Thank you.



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