NEW YORK – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took on President Donald Trump over the partial government shutdown and trade tensions, urging him to resolve his differences with Congress over a border wall and ease tariffs that have roiled markets.
“We’re pushing our leaders to restore responsible governing,” Thomas Donohue, the chamber’s president, said in his annual address on American business on Thursday as the shutdown extended into a 20th day. He also urged Trump to abandon tariffs and “advance strong new trade deals” to stoke United States growth.
Donohue said the country’s top business lobby is changing the way it evaluates whether legislators are advancing the group’s interests, and is reforming its scorecard for lawmakers for the first time in 40 years.
A preview of the scorecard, which tallies how members voted on legislation the group has identified as important to the business community, will now value leadership and bipartisanship each as 10 percent of the overall score.
“Lawmakers should be rewarded for reaching across the aisle – not punished,” he said.
The chamber spent $15.2 million in the 2018 election cycle, but didn’t support a single Democratic candidate, according to federal data. Its political action committee leaned heavily to the GOP as well. It gave $248,999 to Republican candidates for the House and Senate compared to $53,500 for Democrats.
The chamber, which has historically supported Republican administrations, is pushing back on Trump’s positions on the shutdown, trade and immigration, among other issues. The group sent a letter to members of Congress on Tuesday urging a quick agreement with the White House to reopen the government and stop impeding business nationwide.
Donohue said in an interview with Bloomberg Television after his speech that he thinks the shutdown will be solved “sooner than most people think,” because it’s starting to affect businesses, federal workers and the economy.
“If it keeps going for a longer time, it is going to affect what everybody is concerned about, and that is to keep this economy going,’’ he said. “Right now, it’s time to act.”
On immigration, Donohue proposed during his speech “a reasonable solution” that involves protection for so-called Dreamers, young undocumented migrants brought to the U.S. as children, and allocating “resources necessary to secure the border.” He referred to the Founding Founders of the U.S. as “the original American dreamers.”
Donohue declined to say during a press conference after the speech whether any agreement to end the shutdown should include funding for the border wall that Trump wants and Democrats oppose. He said it’s a complex issue and “the people that have the responsibility to figure this out ought to figure it out, and we need it done.’’
Deals to exchange wall funding for status for Dreamers have been proposed as a path to bipartisan compromise, but have so far failed to gain traction as a solution to the current shutdown.
Asked whether the Republican Party risks losing its reputation as the party of business because of the chamber’s differences with the president, Donohue told reporters that the business lobby has supported the administration on judicial appointees, deregulation, tax and energy issues and has “some differences of opinion” on matters including trade and dealing with global organizations.
“I’m happy to keep working with them,’’ Donohue said.
Donohue called in his speech for congressional approval of the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement and for the Trump administration to remove tariffs on steel and aluminum imposed on Canada and Mexico. Eliminating the duties would be an encouraging sign for all U.S. trading partners, Donohue said.
“Tariffs are taxes paid by American families and American businesses – not by foreigners,” he said. That message, which other business groups have echoed, has so far failed to convince the administration to back down from market-roiling tariffs.
The chamber supports the administration’s negotiations with China to address allegations of intellectual property theft and other unfair trade practices, Donohue said, but doesn’t support a trade war waged with mounting tariffs.
North American deal
After the speech, Donohue expressed optimism about the chances for the new North American trade deal in Congress because it involves 14 million American jobs and the two largest U.S. export partners.
“If we can’t sell that, we better find another job,” he said.
He added that it was a mistake for the Trump administration to withdraw from the Transpacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact that Trump exited in his first days in office, but that he has a positive view of the ongoing negotiations with China to reach a deal that ends the trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
Donohue renewed the chamber’s call for the enactment this year of a major package to upgrade U.S. roads, bridges, and other public works – a “major national priority” that he said needs to be treated with greater urgency.
In 2018, the group called for raising federal fuel taxes by 25 cents per gallon over the next five years as the simplest, fairest and most straightforward way to raise more money, although the proposal has opponents. Donohue said he hasn’t heard many better ideas but announced a $25,000 prize for whoever “can come up with the best, most viable ideas for a long-term sustainable funding source for infrastructure.”
There would be enough bipartisan votes in the Democratic-led House and Republican-controlled Senate to pass a fuel-tax increase if a vote were held, Neil Bradley, the chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, said after the speech.
“This is very much a doable thing if we can actually just get it to a vote,’’ said Bradley, a former top Republican congressional aide.
Donohue also warned that the chamber sought to keep “America the pharmaceutical innovation lab of the world” and would oppose “price controls” in the sector.
High drug prices have come under fire repeatedly in Washington. On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers rolled out new proposals to limit prescription price increases, which drug companies say reflect the value delivered to patients. Trump himself has criticized the increases. On Jan. 5, he tweeted that the companies were “not living up to their commitments on pricing” or being fair to the U.S.
“The chamber’s focused on reforming the current system to reward value and quality while continuing to support innovation and access,” Donohue said.
The chamber is also launching “an aggressive and comprehensive new campaign” to protect businesses that includes regulatory and legislative changes to make it easier for firms to become and stay public, he said.
“Fewer public companies means fewer opportunities for Americans to build wealth through shared ownership,” Donohue said. He said the system was under attack from “some activist investors, proxy advisory firms, mass and class action trial lawyers, as well as some political activists and politicians.”
The chamber will continue to support efforts by U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton to bolster capital markets, and attempts by lawmakers to make raising money for new ventures less burdensome, Donohue said.
Despite his concerns over the government shutdown, Donohue forecast an economic growth rate for this year of 2.6 percent. The Federal Reserve projected 2019 U.S. GDP growth of 2.3 percent in quarterly forecasts it updated last month.
Donohue said the chamber supports the independence of the Federal Reserve, which Trump has challenged, and said he thinks Chairman Jerome Powell is “a very competent person.”
Based on the chamber’s quarterly surveys and the strength of the economy with low unemployment, Donohue said the U.S. has “a little while longer before you get a recession.”
“I’m not telling you we’re never going to have a recession,’’ he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have one in 2019.’’
Mark Niquette and Ben Brody are reporters for Bloomberg News.