The State of the Union allows the President to look back at recent accomplishments while outlining an agenda for the new year. For business leaders, understanding the President’s priorities helps them plan the direction of their companies and what investments to make.
Many in the business community will be paying close attention to tonight’s State of the Union – as well as the Democratic response by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
They’ll be looking for sound, pro-business policies that will spur growth and job creation and support workers with rising wages. What they don’t want to hear are misguided policies that stifle businesses – or election year excuses and political finger-pointing.
Prior to the State of the Union, Neil Bradley, U.S. Chamber Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer, and Marty Durbin, President of the U.S. Chamber’s Global Energy Institute, spoke with reporters about three things business leaders want to hear tonight and three things they don’t.
Hope to hear: A commitment to infrastructure legislation
One of the most important things businesses want to hear about during the speech is infrastructure investment. "The nation's infrastructure is deteriorating and only getting worse,” said Durbin. “By 2025 our crumbling infrastructure is estimated to cost American businesses about $7 trillion.”
In other words, this is a challenge that simply can’t wait another year.
"All the pieces are in place to get an infrastructure bill passed this year,” Durbin explained. “We've seen bipartisan Congressional support, and what we need now is for the President to put his political muscle behind the issue so Congress can move forward."
The U.S. Chamber has a four-point plan for infrastructure modernization and investment.
Hope to hear: An energy innovation agenda
The second thing business leaders want to hear is a legislative agenda focused on climate and energy innovation.
“There is strong bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate for a suite of bills that are focused on climate and energy innovation,” said Durbin. It would be “the most significant climate and energy legislation passed in Congress in over a decade."
A package of 35 bills endorsed by the U.S. Chamber includes battery storage, industrial energy efficiency, emission reductions, advance nuclear technology, and carbon capture and sequestration.
They’re “all ready to go in the Senate,” Durbin added. He encouraged Senate leadership to put the suite of bills on the Senate floor so it can then move to the House.
Hope to hear: Workforce solutions
The third item businesses are looking to hear in the State of the Union deals with workforce shortages.
"Irrespective of industry, irrespective of where they're located in the country, and irrespective of size – whether it's a small business all the way up to the nation's largest employers – they're telling us about a common problem: they can't find workers to fill the open jobs they have today,” said Bradley.
Citing a U.S. Chamber analysis Bradley said, "We can only fill nine out of every ten open jobs."
One source of the shortage is “legal immigration is on the decline" by about 7% over the last two years, Bradley noted. "Ultimately it's something we will need to reverse."
The Trump administration deserves credit for addressing the skills gap, Bradley said, but added, "We hope to hear the President talking a little bit about this workforce shortage that we have."
Hope not to hear: Price controls
On the flip side, there are a few things the business community does not want to hear during the State of the Union.
The first is innovation-killing price controls.
"We've seen proposals from both Republicans and Democrats that would really kill innovation in the health care sector,” said Bradley. “Specifically, proposals to impose price controls on pharmaceuticals."
Bradley used the example of the coronavirus. Shortly after the severity of the crisis was realized, pharmaceutical companies immediately began work on developing a vaccine and drug treatment.
"We really need that R&D and that innovation that's only allowed to occur because we have a free market system," said Bradley. "These proposals that we're seeing emerge on both sides of the aisle to impose price controls would absolutely destroy that level of innovation."
Hope not to hear: Tariff threats
The second item we hope doesn’t come up? More tariff talk.
After two recent trade wins – the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and the Phase I trade agreement with China – "we want to be focused on free trade and the benefits of that and not on tariffs that continue to be a drag on the economy,” Durbin said. "While the overall economy is strong, the tariff war was the chief factor sending the U.S. manufacturing sector into a recession last year, and agriculture has been hit even harder."
"When it comes to tariffs, let's be clear, tariffs are paid by American businesses and American consumers,” said Durbin. "Let's focus on trade and not tariffs.”
Hope not to hear: Excuses for inaction
Finally, businesses – just like workers, families and dare we say every American – do not want to hear excuses for inaction and gridlock. They want to hear about a path forward this year on the most important challenges facing our country.
"There's lots of people who say it's an election year so nothing is going to get done,” said Bradley. “That can't be the attitude that our elected leaders take. We have a lot problems that need addressing."
Infrastructure, energy and climate innovation, and workforce shortages all need to be addressed. Significant progress can be made on these issues if our leaders have the political will.
Outside of the Beltway, American’s expect their leaders to lead, no matter if it’s an election year or not. "Businesses simply can't sit around and wait for odd-numbered years to take action, and we expect the same thing from our elected leaders,” said Bradley.