By Kent Hoover
American businesses see an economy “with some strengths but many weaknesses” and “know we could be doing much, much better than we are today.”
That’s the state of American business, as summed up by Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in his annual address Thursday on the challenges and opportunities facing businesses, and the chamber’s proposals for addressing them.
“We can’t wave away all the factors that are holding our economy back or eliminate all uncertainty,” Donohue said. “But we can fix bad policies and remove impediments — in order to spurt investment, jobs, growth and opportunity."
Here are four messages the chamber — Washington’s most powerful business lobby — has for politicians, including Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump:
1. Economic growth should be a central issue in the 2016 elections
The chamber is a major player in congressional elections and state judicial elections, and will continue to play that role again in 2016. Its goal is to elect candidates “who understand that it’s the private sector, not government, that creates jobs and prosperity — and that the overriding goal must be to expand the economic pie, not simply redistribute it,” Donohue said.
“What business wants to see in this campaign is a long overdue focus on economic growth,” he said.
The chamber generally supports Republicans in congressional elections, and has played a key role in GOP primaries by backing traditional “pro-business” candidates “who want to come to Washington to govern and not just shut the place down,” in Donohue’s words.
2. Keeping Republican control of Congress is a top priority.
“We will protect advances we made in the last election,” Donohue said.
The chamber has issues with some Republicans
The chamber doesn’t endorse presidential candidates, but Donohue said it will weigh in on issues raised in the campaign.
“If candidates choose to beat up on business, they’re going to hear from us,” he said.
Although he didn’t mention them by name, that includes Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who are “promising to double down on the current administration’s policies — more spending, more entitlements, more taxing and more regulating,” Donohue said.
“I guess they figure that if something isn’t working, just do more of it. Does that make any sense.”
But he also had harsh words for some Republican candidates. Again, he didn’t mention any names, but it sure sounded like he had Trump in mind.
“On the other side there are voices — sometimes very loud voices — who talk about walling off America from talent and trade, and who are attacking whole groups of people based not on their conduct, but on their ethnicity or religion. This is morally wrong and politically stupid,” Donohue said.
He also took issue with Republicans who contend that the government is engaged in “crony capitalism — the notion that government spends all day every day figuring out how to help business. Really? That’s not the Washington I know, and I’ve been here a long time,” Donohue said.
In last year’s fight over the Export-Import Bank, business groups beat ideological conservatives who contended the bank was a form of crony capitalism. That’s because it became clear the bank’s lapse was costing American businesses sales opportunities overseas. Reality “caused us to get the votes we needed,” Donohue said.
3. It will fight Obama’s regulatory push in Congress and the courts
“Businesspeople at companies large and small wake up each morning and wonder what the government is going to do them today,” Donohue said.
“The current administration is on a regulatory tear — and this will continue until the day the moving van backs up to the door of the White House next January,” he said.
The chamber will work with agencies to minimize the damage these regulations will have on businesses, lobby Congress to try to block the most burdensome rules, and file lawsuits against regulations that go beyond what agencies are authorized to do, he said.
“You can be sure that our litigation center will be busier than ever in the final year of this administration,” Donohue said.
The chamber already has filed lawsuits challenging Environmental Protection Agency rules that require power plants to reduce carbon emissions, expand bodies of water subject to federal regulation, and impose stricter limits on ozone emissions.
“There will be others,” Donohue said.
These could include challenges to regulations on their way this year that would make more workers eligible for overtime pay and impose new rules on financial advisers, which could make retirement plans more expensive for small businesses.
4. Obamacare should be fixed, not repealed
The Affordable Care Act has been in place so long that fully repealing it isn’t practical, according to the chamber.
Instead, the Chamber is “trying to make this thing work,” said Bruce Josten, the organization’s top lobbyist.
That means permanently getting rid of ACA’s taxes on health insurers, medical device companies and high-value health plans, he said. The chamber also wants Congress to raise limits on health savings accounts, because these limits are hurting small businesses.
Last year business groups succeeded in blocking Obamacare’s expansion of the small group market, which would have led to higher premiums for businesses with 51 to 100 employees.
This year, Donohue said, “We’ll seek further targeted improvements to Obamacare, with the hope that major health care reforms will be considered in 2017,” Donohue said.