U.S. Chamber Calls for Cooperation to Boost Economy

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue speaks at the State of American Business 2015 event in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jacquelyn Martin/APU.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue assesses America's business.

By Tom Risen

Predicting modest growth for the country in 2015, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue on Wednesday denounced excessive regulation and called for bipartisan cooperation among lawmakers to further boost the U.S. economy and labor market.

The U.S. is in its greatest period of job growth since 2006, and the economy will likely improve "moderately" this year following signs of increased hiring, bolstered consumer spending and a housing sector that "continues to improve in fits and starts," Donohue said during a speech laying out his group's policy priorities for the next year.

But the country is "not out of the woods yet," he warned, citing a recent Labor Department report showing 17.7 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and that the 62.7 percent labor participation rate is the lowest since 1978.

"The chamber expects to see growth at 3 percent to 3.5 percent at least through the middle of the year," Donohue said. "Interest rates, energy prices and inflation should remain low for the time being. There's no reason to think that another recession is lurking out there on the near-term horizon."

Call for Keystone XL to Be Approved

Hoping Congress will move past progressive and conservative leanings, Donohue called on lawmakers to find a "governing center" that would help them "get things done" to improve the economy.

The chamber has sided with Republicans in pushing for approval of the proposed $5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline extension from Canada to the U.S. and has called for changes to the Dodd-Frank Act regulating Wall Street, so the group has high ambitions for the new Republican majority during this session of Congress.

The U.S. economic outlook is less optimistic in the long term due to slowing growth in China and the potential of a recession in Japan, Donohue said. But boosting international trade is a major pillar of the chamber's agenda, so the group has supported President Barack Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba and his efforts to increase trade with China. "Ninety-five percent of the people we want to sell something to live outside the United States," Donohue said.

Fearing that regulations like the Affordable Care Act will add potentially burdensome health care expenses to businesses, Donohue said the chamber will continue to push to remove fines mandated by the act, including the medical device tax. Donohue also said the chamber will support any chance of tax reform, but not if it would lead to increased taxes on businesses.

"Some 4,000 new regulations will pour out of the regulatory pipeline this year," he said. "Successful financial regulatory reform can't be measured by the sheer number of new regulations or the size of the fines extracted from financial firms."

Time to Act on Technology, Immigration, Education

Citing the tech sector and the Internet as major drivers of U.S. growth, Donohue said the chamber's new Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation will spearhead an effort to "defend technology companies and advance their policy interests" around the world. Supporting the tech industry matches the chamber's call to ease immigration restrictions to attract foreign workers. "It is in the best interests of both parties to act [on immigration] before the next election," he said.

The chamber opposes net neutrality rules being proposed by the Federal Communications Commission, which is expected to vote on a proposal next month. Net neutrality on principle aims to ensure all websites can compete and have equal access to Internet speeds, but Republicans broadly claim new FCC rules would discourage investment in the tech sector by adding regulatory uncertainty.

Recent hacks of companies like Sony Pictures Entertainment and JPMorgan Chase also highlight the vulnerability of business networks and the need for cybersecurity legislation. Obama on Tuesday discussed his proposal for legislation to boost cybersecurity enforcement, including a bill that would ease data-sharing lability and enable companies to better collaborate with the government on network threats. "We are calling for the Congress to pass a new cybersecurity information-sharing bill without delay," Donohue said.

Education reform additionally is important to the chamber, as Donohue said lack of access to quality teaching is "fundamentally unfair" and "where the real inequity happens in America." Solutions he proposed include broadening access to charter schools, along with measures to raise pay for quality teachers while "removing the few" poorly performing educators.