September 16, 2014

Russian threat to cut off farm imports not seen as big to Nebraska (AUDIO)

A threat from Russia to cut off agricultural imports from the United States isn’t seen as significant for Nebraska.

Sen. Mike Johanns says exports to Russia have declined over the years as Russia has proven to be an unreliable trade partner.

Johanns, the former Secretary of Agriculture, adds the problem could be resolved rather quickly.

“This can be solved tonight, today, this morning, if Putin just says, ‘Look, we’re not going to invade Ukraine. We’re not going to try to take over Crimea. These are sovereign areas that we’re going to leave alone,’” Johanns tells Nebraska Radio Network.

If that were to happen, normalized trading between Russia and the United States could resume, according to Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made the threat in retaliation to economic sanctions imposed because of Russian aggression toward Ukraine. Putin has ordered Russian authorities to draw up a list of agricultural products from countries that have participated in the economic sanctions against Russia, purportedly banning all products from the United States.

The biggest impact in Nebraska would be the sale of dry beans. Nebraska is a major producer and has a substantial market share in Russia. Other Nebraska farm exports to Russia, such as beef, have declined over the past few years.

Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson doesn’t perceive the threat as substantial.

“It could become a bigger issue, but I guess at this point, I’m not sure that it’s going to be that big of an issue,” Nelson tells Nebraska Radio Network.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

Sen. Johanns joins legislation to address border crisis (AUDIO)

Sen. Mike Johanns has backed legislation to resolve the crisis which has allowed an estimated 57,000 children to cross the southern border illegally.

Johanns co-sponsors a bill that would tweak the 2008 law on illegal immigrant children, create a swifter immigration process for the children, and add 40 immigration judges.

“In Nebraska, immigration court dates are being set more than two years out, 800-and-some days out, with 5,000 undocumented immigrants awaiting a hearing, not even counting what we’re dealing with here,” Johanns says.

The senator refers to the 200 children the federal Department of Health and Human Services has placed in Nebraska.

Johanns blames President Barack Obama in large part for the problem. Johanns says the president’s promise during the 2012 campaign that minors illegally brought into the country will not be deported has been exploited by unsavory people in Central America.

The so-called coyotes have spread the word through the region that children making it to America will not be turned away or sent back, according to Johanns. They have shaken down families, according to the senator, with the promise of a better life for the children only to take them on what Johanns calls the “trip from Hell.”

The legislation would amend the 2008 law on unaccompanied minor children from Central America, would speed up the immigration process for the minors, would add 40 immigration judges to handle the backlog of immigration cases, would secure high-traffic areas of the border, and would authorize governors to send National Guard troops to the border.

Johanns gives President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to address the problem no chance of passing.

“I think the administration has got to reach out and start working with people, because I don’t believe their original request is going to go anywhere. I just don’t think it’s going to be funded.”

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]

Johanns asserts 6.1% unemployment rate doesn’t reflect reality (AUDIO)

Sen. Mike Johanns has questioned the Federal Reserve chairwoman on whether she is satisfied with the progress on the federal unemployment rate.

Johanns, during a Senate Banking Committee hearing, told Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen that while a 6.1% percent unemployment rate looks impressive, only about 63% of Americans are actually in the labor market.

“We haven’t seen those kinds of numbers since Jimmy Carter was president,” Johanns told Yellen.

Johanns asserted the unemployment rate’s decline doesn’t reflect the reality that many Americans have become discouraged and have dropped out of the labor market. Others, according to Johanns, have been forced into part-time jobs often working two or three to try to make ends meet.

Yellen agreed, in part.

The Federal Reserve chairwoman told Johanns some of the drop in labor market participation has to do with demographics. In particular, as the country’s population has aged, more and more people leave the labor force.

Still, Yellen said there are discouraged workers out there. She predicted they would return to the labor force as the economy continues to improve. The influx of more workers will keep the unemployment rate from dropping as it has recently.

Yellen denied the Fed is satisfied with a 6.5% unemployment rate.

“So, that’s never been our target and 6.1% is not our target either,” Yellen replied to Johanns.

The Fed has been keeping interest rates extremely low and propping up the economy through its monthly bond-buying stimulus program.

Johanns praised Yellen for reducing the purchases, but expressed concern that the Federal Reserve purchases have grown to $4.4 trillion.

Yellen said that if the labor market shows improvement into the fall and inflation stays in check, the Fed would likely end the stimulus program in October.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

Johanns says Hobby Lobby ruling upholds religious liberties (AUDIO)

Sen. Mike Johanns says the Supreme Court had to reach the conclusion it did in the Hobby Lobby case if religious liberty is to mean anything in the United States.

Johanns sees the ruling as very positive.

“If conscience protection, religious liberty, etc. are to mean anything, it just seemed to me that they had to come to this conclusion,” Johanns tells Nebraska Radio Network in a telephone interview.

Johanns doesn’t read a lot into the narrow 5-to-4 ruling, stating such splits are the norm on significant constitutional issues.

“People will try to make something out of it relative to this court, but the reality is you’re just going to run into this at various times in the history of the country,” according to Johanns. “These are very, very challenging constitutional issues, depending upon what side of the political spectrum you’re on.”

The court ruled that the federal government cannot compel a family-owned corporation to provide contraception coverage that violates the owner’s religious convictions.

Both Hobby Lobby of Oklahoma and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania filed lawsuits against the federal government, claiming the contraception mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services violated their First Amendment religious rights.

Specifically, the family-held corporations sought exemptions from a few of the 20 methods of contraception DHHS mandates that health insurance policies provide. Those methods of contraception edge too closely to abortion, according to the businesses, which runs contrary to the religious beliefs of their owners.

The ruling in favor of the businesses relied heavily on the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993, which requires the federal government to find the least restrictive way to enforce rules that might be contrary to religious beliefs.

Though the majority opinion described the ruling as narrow, a dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cast a different view, stating that it would invite businesses to seek religiously based exemptions from various federal rules and laws.

“I just don’t see where Justice Ginsburg is coming from on this,” Johanns says. “I think there could have been some potential for an expansive ruling, but it just didn’t happen here. It just didn’t happen.”

Johanns also rejects suggestions that the ruling extends what should be individual constitutional rights to corporations.

“I think if this had been a corporate interest with millions of stockholders, you could have had a much different result,” Johanns says. “Hobby Lobby is basically a family, a very devout Christian family and that’s what allowed the Supreme Court to keep five votes together and get this ruling.”

AUDIO:  Brent Martin interviews Sen. Mike Johanns on the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby ruling. [4 min.]

Obama budget DOA says Johanns, Fortenberry (AUDIO)

Two members of Nebraska’s Congressional delegation pan the budget proposed by President Barack Obama.

Sen. Mike Johanns says the president’s proposed budget was dead on arrival.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of a proposal by the president that isn’t even given five minutes of serious discussion,” Johanns says. “This budget is going nowhere.”

The president’s budget totals $3.9 trillion. It includes $55 billion in new spending on defense, highway infrastructure, preschool education, even an increase in tax credits for the poor. It would raise taxes by $1 trillion through increased taxes on businesses and America’s wealthy.

The White House estimates that the debt would shrink under the president’s budget plan to around 69% of the Gross Domestic Product. That, though, is a far rosier take than that projected by the Congressional Budget Office, which forecasts the debt to rise to 74% of the GDP in 2024.

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, a member of the House Budget Committee, says the proposal lacks courage and vision.

“This budget significantly increases taxes and spending and has a whole laundry list of ideas that are going nowhere in the House,” according to Fortenberry.

The House is controlled by Republicans. Democrats control the Senate.

Both Fortenberry and Johanns are Republicans. Obama is a Democrat.

Fortenberry and Johanns expect Congress to follow the spending caps approved late last year after House Budget Committee Chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reached agreement.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]