Addressing the Challenges of a Nation at Risk - Address by Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - 7:00pm

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors

Washington, D.C.

As prepared for delivery

Introduction—Elections and Their Aftermath

Thank you very much, and good morning ladies and gentlemen. Last night we had a great dinner and heard two of the best political experts tell us what the American people were saying when they cast their votes on November 2nd.

Later this morning, we’ll hear from our own experts who will tell us how the Chamber did in its biggest-ever voter education campaign.

What I’d like to do for a few minutes now is talk about the future—the future of our country, the future of our economy, and the future of the Chamber.

The elections are over—and our message was heard. Along with others, we spoke about the dangers of a bigger, more intrusive government…about the essential role of free enterprise to the American Dream … and about the overriding challenge of creating 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.

The American people responded in an historic way.

I’m proud of the role that the Chamber played in educating voters about the serious issues facing our economy.

And I am very proud of the way our staff, board, and members stood up to attacks by those who tried and failed to silence the voice of business.

Since the elections, we’ve been asked whether the Chamber will be able to work with the administration and those in Congress who criticized us.

The answer is, of course we can. It’s already happening.

For example, I just got back from the G-20 meetings in Korea and the APEC meetings in Japan, where I and the Chamber team worked very closely with leaders in the administration to complete the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

We didn’t quite get it done, but I am encouraged that the agreement will be completed soon.

Secretary Geithner and Ambassador Kirk will join our board meeting later this morning. So will incoming Speaker Boehner and Senator John Thune.

This is not personal with us. It’s about representing our members and advancing ideas that we think are essential to expand our economy, compete in the world, and create American jobs.

We’re prepared to join with President Obama, his administration, and both parties in Congress whenever we can to achieve these goals.

The big question facing all of us is how does the nation climb out of the hole we’re in today?

The Chamber’s Strategic Review

That’s a question we’ve been thinking about a lot at the Chamber. For a number of months, we’ve been conducting an inquiry into the issues that pose the greatest challenge to our nation, our economy, and American business over the next 3-5 years.

We also asked some tough questions of ourselves. What does the Chamber need to do to more effectively represent the business community and help our nation recover and succeed in the global economy?

This strategic review sought advice from a broad cross-section of American business—as represented by this board and our executive committee.

We spoke at length to our Chamber consultants, Democrats and Republicans with broad experience. And, each of the talented staff leaders at the Chamber brought forward many good ideas on both issues and operations.

Let me tell you what we have concluded and some of the things we’re going to do.

A Nation at Risk

We believe that America is a nation at risk.

The warning signs have been building for years and they are all around us …

We’re falling behind in world markets. For example, our share of trade in Asia—the world’s fastest growing region—has declined 9% since 1990.

We’ve got the second highest corporate tax rate in the world. We’re making it progressively harder to manufacture products here—and this country must maintain a strong manufacturing base.

We’re failing to adequately educate and train our young people. Thirty percent don’t even graduate from high school in four years—that’s a national disgrace.

We are letting our infrastructure crumble. It takes too damn long to build anything in this country—and everybody knows it.

Our competitors are rushing around the globe, making energy deals and locking up natural resources.

Meanwhile, we’re sitting on vast supplies of our own domestic energy, which could be prudently developed to strengthen our economy, boost our national security, and reduce trade and fiscal deficits.

And speaking of deficits, America is drowning in red ink. Driven primarily by unsustainable entitlements, we’re on track to nearly double the national debt in 10 years.

By the year 2020, the national debt will exceed $20 trillion—and American taxpayers will be paying nearly $1 trillion per year in interest to our creditors around the world.

Given these burdens, if there were ever a time when we needed strong economic growth and job creation, it is now. But we don’t have that going for us either.

Thanks to unprecedented levels of uncertainty, we’re experiencing one of the weakest recoveries from a recession since World War II.

Our economy is simply not expanding fast enough to reduce unemployment and create 20 million jobs.

Now, I’m Irish so it’s in my genes to be optimistic. And there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about America—a nation with favorable demographics, tremendous natural and human resources, and an unprecedented history of rebirth and reinvention.

And don’t forget—every one of the global competitors we’re worried about has major problems of their own. Would anyone here really want to trade places with any one of them?

Key Issues and New Initiatives

Nonetheless, it’s time to get serious. It’s time to act. We’ve been diagnosing our problems for years. How about some treatment?

At the Chamber, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. But we do have more than 400 dedicated people working everyday on more than 300 important issues that can help America compete, prosper, and create jobs.

Legal reform, capital markets, energy security, environment, health care, taxes, labor policy, transportation, and international trade—these issues and others comprise the Chamber’s core agenda. This agenda will continue to receive our full attention.

But during our strategic review, we also identified a set of issues that really jumped out at us. These are matters that demand the nation’s urgent attention as well as the Chamber special emphasis—on top of everything else we are doing.

Let me tell you briefly about a few of them.

The Regulatory Tsunami

First—the biggest single threat to job creation facing us today is a regulatory tsunami of unprecedented force.

Regulations already cost Americans $1.75 trillion a year—and many of them are essential.

But now, there are thousands of new and questionable regulatory rulemakings in the pipeline.

The EPA is advancing 29 proposed major rules and 173 others.

The Department of Labor and the NLRB are working on at least 100 regulations and policy changes covering compensation, contracting, ergonomics, workplace safety, hiring and firing, and union organizing.

The massive health care law creates 183 new agencies, commissions, panels, and other bodies.

And, the financial regulatory reform bill has 320 required rulemakings, another 220 suggested rulemakings, and over 170 reports and studies.

We have never seen anything on this scale before. It defies all logic and common sense.

The Chamber has experts in each of the areas I have mentioned and they are working everyday to stem the tide of this regulatory tsunami.

We’re going to add significant resources to this effort, including a regulatory economist and even greater activism by our two legal organizations, the Institute for Legal Reform and the National Chamber Litigation Center.

We will also stand up a new group that will engage a national advocate of stature and experience in the regulatory arena. This group will continually tell the story to the American people about the massive costs of excessive regulations—a tax, if you will—on jobs and on their personal and economic freedom.

Let me be clear. The purpose of our effort is not to weaken the regulation of business. It is to strengthen the job creating capacity of our nation.

We cannot allow this nation to move from a government of the people to a government of the regulators. And we’re going to be engaged in this fight for years to come.

This is where government is going. Regulation is the vehicle by which some seek to control our economy, our businesses, and our lives—and left unchecked, it will fundamentally weaken our nation’s capacity to create jobs and opportunity.

A Pro-America Trade Agenda

We also need a pro-America trade agenda that creates American jobs and we must convince our citizens to embrace openness and global engagement.

Many Americans think that trade agreements kill jobs … that foreign investment and immigration threaten our national sovereignty … and that U.S. investments abroad take domestic jobs away.

With facts and no sugar-coating, we need to educate citizens about America’s role in the global economy—its benefits, its opportunities, and its competitive realities.

So we’re going to launch a major new initiative to educate citizens and policymakers on trade and clearly link global engagement to American jobs.

Alongside education must come bold policy action—on trade agreements, on expanding tourism, on attracting foreign investment, and on immigration reform.

Ninety-five percent of the people we want to sell something to live somewhere else. We had better get off the sidelines and back into the game.

America’s Debt Crisis

Business must also do its part to help address a defining challenge of our times—the expansion of government spending and entitlements, and with it, the explosion of government debt.

Federal entitlements and other spending—along with state and local payroll, pension, and health care obligations—threaten to bankrupt our nation.

We plan to begin by doing what any smart company or political campaign might do, and that is conduct opposition research on itself—an eyes-wide-open “risk analysis” of the American economy and our business system.

We’ll identify specific threats and vulnerabilities and then call for action in response to these risks, including:

Tax reform that broadens the tax base and makes us more competitive …

Entitlement reform that meets our social obligations without expanding dependency on government, and …

Deficit reduction approaches that honestly address the structural deficit caused by entitlements and changing demographics.

As we confront the nation’s debt crisis, we must recognize the reality that without robust economic growth and job creation, we will never be able to put a serious dent in the deficit.

That’s why, with the economy still so weak and joblessness so high, the Chamber is calling on the lame duck Congress to immediately renew all of the expiring 2001 and 2003 tax relief—as well as the business tax provisions that expired at the end of 2009.

None of the issues surrounding deficits and taxes are easy for the business community and those who represent it.

Driven by the demands of the market, each time various tax and spending ideas are advanced, companies and industries immediately calculate the short-term costs to them. Then they call us up and seek our help.

We understand that. But there’s another set of costs we must all calculate and consider —the long-term costs to our country, our economy, and future generations if America fails to act.

The Chamber will strongly urge our members to consider these costs as well. And, we will lead the business community to a constructive role in addressing the nation’s deficit and debt crisis.

Rebuilding America’s Economic Foundation

Another idea we’re putting front and center is the need to rebuild America’s economic foundation—the physical platform on which our society runs.

We must do this to create jobs, compete globally, and save lives.

The Chamber has just begun to release a series of annual performance indexes covering our major infrastructure systems to document our needs and build the case for investments by tying them directly to GDP growth.

And we are leading the fight to remove the regulatory, financial, and legal barriers that have locked away hundreds of billions of dollars in private infrastructure spending.

Roads, bridges, rail and mass transit networks, airports, and air transport systems must be modernized. Broadband capacity, power generation, and water supplies must be expanded. Taken together, these projects will create a lot of jobs.

And we must develop more domestic energy and other natural resources. We can do it responsibly, create jobs, reduce imports, and generate a lot of revenues for governments without increasing taxes—a win-win for everyone.

Innovation to Solve Problems and Create Jobs

Americans must also reclaim the title as the world’s most innovative people in business, research and development, science, education, and government.

To support this effort, the Chamber will create the U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation.

The Forum will combine the current assets of several existing programs, and get new resources and expertise to strengthen our research and generate new ideas.

The new organization will lead a serious effort on public school reform and much needed changes in the nation’s worker training programs.

And it will support our successful Campaign for Free Enterprise—a project that has already made a significant impact, and which we will further expand in the days ahead.

In order to be a true innovation society, we must also protect intellectual property at home and around the world.

The Chamber’s Global Intellectual Property Center will expand its worldwide campaign to support innovation by stopping counterfeiting and piracy, defending intellectual property, and improving our patents system.

Empowering and Engaging Small Businesses

The Chamber is also going to ensure that America’s small businesses have a more influential voice in the affairs of our nation—and that they get more involved in influencing government policies.

Small firms can drive a significant amount of new growth, innovation, exports, and jobs. They must be supported, encouraged, and organized. They need a stronger voice in Washington and they need to make that voice heard.

Through our federation, the Chamber will establish a team of small business advocates who will travel the country to inform, rally, and build support for small businesses.

We will also review and strengthen our federation and grassroots operations. This includes deepening our engagement with local chambers, younger entrepreneurs, Hispanic and African-American businesses, and the four million veteran-owned businesses.

At the same time, we must recognize the strong interdependence between small and large companies.

Many small businesses have as their largest customers the big companies. And big companies need small companies.

The Chamber will work to end the artificial divisions that have divided the business community in the past. Given the challenges we face, now is the time to forge a new business unity that will exert an even stronger influence on policy, legislation, and politics.

Defending the Business Community’s Free Speech Rights

And you can count on the Chamber to lead the fight to defend the rights of American business to speak out, lobby, and participate in politics.

Though the 2010 elections are over, the attacks on the rights of companies and associations to participate in our democracy will continue.

The Chamber will mount a vigorous defense and aggressive offense in support of the right to lobby, communicate with voters, talk to employees, and to do so without government harassment or undue restriction.

We’ll also continue to fight card check at the federal and state levels—as well as efforts to impose government-run binding arbitration and proxy access rules for special interest shareholders.

“Disclosure” may be the public rallying cry of those seeking to silence the business community—but their real purpose is to find out all they can about our supporters and then target them for intimidation and harassment.

They want to drive business out of our elections and policy debates. But guess what? It ain’t going to happen.

Securing the Chamber’s Future

Finally, we’re going to secure the future of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the nation’s preeminent voice of business and free enterprise.

In 2012, the Chamber will be 100 years old.

To mark that milestone, we’re going to complete our capital campaign—reaching the goal of having $100 million in working capital in time for our 100th year.

Like any responsible business, we’ve got to control our expenditures, assess our management and operations, improve speed and efficiency, and continue to build up our staff.

The Chamber’s brand—one of the most highly rated and positively viewed brands in the nation—must be protected … and it will be strengthened.

And, we must prepare the Chamber to be ready for the unexpected. New issues, problems, and crises that no one has even thought of can appear without notice—and they will.

To sum up, there are those in this town who probably wish that the Chamber would just go away.

But we’re not going anywhere—except up. Up in resources, up in membership, up in issues depth and grassroots strength, and up in influence—in Washington, in the states, and around the world.

We will undertake this work with a sense of humility, a recognition of the depth of our challenges, and the knowledge that we can only succeed with the help and support of others.

By securing the Chamber’s future as an organization of influence and respect, we can continue to win important victories for the business community.

We can help our nation solve its problems—beginning with the overriding challenge of putting America back to work.

And we can help our fellow citizens by defending and advancing free enterprise so that that they can achieve the American Dream.

We pledge to do that to the best of our abilities. Thank you very much.