Chamber of Commerce CEO Lays Out 2017 Agenda

Yesterday morning U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue gave his annual “State of American Business Address” to a packed hall at the Chamber’s H Street headquarters, one block from the White House.

Donohue made very clear that increasing economic growth was the Chamber’s top goal and that any new policy changes in Washington would be evaluated through that lens:

In just a moment, I’ll outline a few of the ways we can get to faster economic growth. But it is important to understand that growth is not just a proposal or a bill. Growth is a philosophy. You have to believe that economic growth is the foundation on which a prosperous, secure, and compassionate society rests.

Growth is a choice—and not always an easy choice. It’s tempting, especially in politics, to put other priorities ahead of growth—priorities that may please the voters or satisfy the demands of one constituency or another.

Over the past eight years we have seen the consequences and paid the price of a philosophy that often put other priorities ahead of economic growth.

This must change. It’s a time for choosing—choosing growth. 

Presumably Donohue chose that last sentence with the goal of appealing to the Republicans who are now in control of both houses of Congress and rapidly staffing the Trump administration. Ronald Reagan famously gave a televised speech during the 1964 presidential election on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s campaign with the title “A Time for Choosing.” While much of that speech’s Cold War focus is less relevant in the 21st Century with the demise of the Soviet Union, Reagan’s comments on the role of the government in economic affairs generally still apply today:

A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.

With that reference planted in the audience’s mind, Donohue went on to detail several areas where the Chamber will be seeking to influence policy at the federal level in 2017, including regulatory reform, health care, energy, trade, taxes, immigration, and legal reform.  

On regulatory reform, attendees heard a strong endorsement for passage of the Regulatory Accountability Act, which we at CEI have also been eagerly tracking as it advances through the legislative process in the 115th Congress. According to Donohue, it would not only “restore the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches,” but be “the first major update to how federal agencies write rules in 70 years.”

Appealing to the President-elect’s well known desire to support domestic manufacturing jobs, Donohue offer this spin on energy policy: “Everyone is talking about how they want more things that are Made in the U.S.A. How about American energy? … Lawmakers should work quickly to rescind and replace the restrictive energy policies of the current administration so that we can unleash more growth and more jobs for Americans.” CEI, of course, supports these goals as well, in particular reforming environmental restrictions and federal land management priorities that lock up resources and changing laws that limit access to affordable energy.

The Chamber is in a difficult position on trade, one of its most important issues. The President-elect has signaled that he is opposed to many of the existing free trade policies that the Chamber has long been at the forefront of advancing. The future of free trade under a Trump administration seems less than promising to free market advocates. Donohue said that he agreed with Trump about wanting to “negotiate strong, new trade deals” and that “we welcome the discussion on how [NAFTA] can be modernized and strengthened.” He also, however, reiterated the connection between strong trade relations and domestic jobs:

The bottom line is that if we are going to “Hire American,” we are going to have to “Sell American”—sell our goods and services to the 95 percent of the world’s customers who don’t live in the United States.

Trade is already an enormous benefit to our domestic economy, to our small businesses, to the American consumer, and to the 40 million American workers whose jobs depend on trade.

Our big challenge is how to preserve and expand these benefits while also helping those workers and communities who have been hurt—not just by trade but by technology, automation, and the realities of a global economy.

Donohue also announced an interesting new initiative of “regional growth summits,” to be co-hosted with the Chamber’s state and local affiliates, to listen to the concerns of small business owners across the country. And apparently it won’t just be a way of crowdsourcing complaints about government regulations. “We’re going to create a powerful grassroots army out of our nearly 400,000 smaller companies,” Donohue said. “[We’re going to] ensure that no one can ignore their voice—not in policy, not in politics, not in government, and not in the public square.”