Chamber of Commerce chief: Attacks on our rights must be challenged

Monday, September 12, 2016 (All day)

By Thomas J. Donohue 

When not attacking each other's character, our presidential candidates are slugging it out over several very contentious public policy issues, from trade and taxes to immigration and energy development. These are incredibly important matters to the future of our economy and our country. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce should know because we're right in the middle of most of them.

But during this election season, Americans should not lose sight of another critical issue facing our nation — a coordinated attack on the building blocks of American society. I'm talking about the right to free speech, to due process and to take a risk, fail and try again.

These are the fundamental liberties we have long valued — a basket of freedoms that together define the American Dream and bring vitality to a productive, innovative and prosperous free enterprise system.

Today, these rights are being challenged and, in many instances, eroded. It's time for the American people, the press, Congress and the business community to wake up to this reality.

These threats take many forms — legislation and regulations designed to threaten the political engagement of business groups and others; outrageous fines being legally extorted from companies by prosecutorial agencies; abusive efforts by agencies like the IRS to single out and punish organizations that have a different view of what is right for our nation; overzealous academic speech codes, restraints on journalists and a disturbing lack of respect for other voices and viewpoints.

Why should this concern the business community? Because we're often the prime target. The attacks on free speech in this country have been growing steadily in recent years across many institutions, but it's business free speech that has been the No. 1 target for legislators, regulators and activists.

Some politicians and business opponents have determined that if they can't beat us on the merits in the public square, they'll simply work to silence our voice and cut us out of the debate altogether so that they can have a one-sided conversation with the American people. There's only one problem — such efforts are unconstitutional. They have no place in a free country.

For example, anti-business groups have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to make a rule that would compel public companies to disclose their spending on independent political speech.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a handful of her colleagues are ramping up the pressure, blocking the confirmation of candidates for SEC commissioner because they will not pledge to support such a rule. It's the worst-kept secret in Washington that such measures are designed to identify donors and drive them right out of the public square.

Some are even willing to tear up the Constitution as we know it, and as the Founding Fathers wrote it, in order to silence business. Both candidates for president have been critical of Citizens United, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot deprive groups of their freedom to speak independently for or against candidates running for public office.

One candidate even said that the First Amendment should be rewritten if that's what it takes to reverse the decision.

I understand that there are plenty of people who disagree with the positions of the business community. And that's fine. They should fight us on the battleground of ideas. Tell the American people we're dead wrong.

But don't shut down and choke off our right — or the right of any other American citizen or institution — to speak up and speak out. This country must never go down the path of criminalizing policy and political differences.

Americans should also be very concerned about the erosion of the right to defend oneself against the government. The most prominent example is the abuse of our civil enforcement system.

The Economist magazine recently wrote that America's enforcement system is "the world's most lucrative shakedown operation." We've seen an explosion of enforcement actions at the federal, state and local levels, with follow-on lawsuits by plaintiffs' lawyers.

You don't have to look far to find coercion and political grandstanding. We see it in the slew of multimillion and multibillion-dollar settlements where the alleged wrongdoing is unclear, the fine is arbitrary, the process is opaque and companies are being forced to negotiate with the threat of losing everything hanging over their heads.

Regulators are setting themselves up as the investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and tax collector. The ability to fight back against "city hall" is a right that helps set apart the United States from the rest of the world, yet it is a right that has become harder to exercise because the deck is so heavily stacked in the government's favor.

Another fundamental right that's under attack is the right to take a risk and be rewarded for its success. I'm tired of hearing politicians say that businesses don't really create jobs ... or that they didn't really build their businesses ... or that if a businessperson happens to be successful and wealthy, then, by definition, he or she must have ripped off a lot of people to get there.

We must remember what made us such a great country, and why people came from all over the world at great hardship to be here. Because this is a land of opportunity, where you could develop an idea, pursue a dream and succeed beyond your wildest expectations. And through your success, you could help others achieve their success.

The Chamber is fighting to ensure that all Americans have the right to petition our government without fear, intimidation or undue regulation. We're fighting for due process under the law, free of abusive tactics by federal and state agencies and prosecutors who have the entire resources of the government amassed behind them.

We're fighting for everyone's right to speak and even to voice controversial opinions without being tarred and feathered in the public square. And we're fighting to preserve the spirit of enterprise in America that begins with the right to risk, to fail, to try again and to succeed.

Edmund Burke once wrote that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Members of all sectors of society must acknowledge these attacks, boldly confront them, and yell, "Stop!" This is bigger than any single public policy issue or presidential election and requires our urgent action.

Thomas J. Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business federation.