U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue took swipes Thursday at the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda and the GOP’s leading White House contenders, as he outlined the 2016 mission for Washington’s biggest lobbying organization.
Though he didn’t mention Donald Trump or others by name, Donohue assailed the “sometimes very loud voices who talk about walling off America from talent, from trade ” and proposals that target specific ethnic and religious groups — an obvious reference to Trump’s call to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States amid terrorism concerns.
“This is morally wrong and politically stupid,” said Donohue, whose $300 million group doesn’t endorse presidential candidates but will weigh in on their policy proposals.
In congressional races, Donohue said, the chamber’s priority is to “protect the gains we made” in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate and added seats for the largest House majority since the Truman administration. Donohue also unveiled during his annual state of American business speech a legislative agenda that reflects the group’s expectation that election-year politics will consume much of Capitol Hill’s attention.
Many of the business community’s top policy priorities — passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and overhauls to immigration and tax laws — are unlikely to move on Capitol Hill before the November elections. But, he said, the chamber would use “all of our tools” to challenge new Obama administration labor, health, financial and environmental regulations, including using the congressional appropriations process and the courts.
“Some may ask whether the business community can expect to see any progress in Washington this year. The honest answer is not as much as we would like — but more than you may expect,” he said. He also noted, “You can be sure our litigation center will be busier than ever.”
Playing in Primaries
The chamber’s political operation also won’t have a calm year.
Donohue said the chamber has identified primaries in which it will spend money, but declined multiple times to name any. He would not say whether the group’s chosen primaries were Republican or Democratic races or in which states, but said the chamber would “soon” begin making those announcements.
He also stayed mum on dollar estimates for the chamber’s political spending in House and Senate races, though it is expected to exceed last cycle’s $70 million tab.
Senate races will take much of the chamber’s attention, but he said he isn’t taking the House for granted, either. Democrats need only a net gain of five seats to win back control of the Senate, but would need to pick up 30 House seats to knock the GOP out of power.
“We’ll play a role in the Senate side in a very aggressive way. We believe there is a value to the business community by holding the Senate,” he said during a news conference after the speech. In a presidential year, he added, “you have to pay a lot more attention to the House.”
He said the chamber would back candidates who support “pro-growth policies and a free enterprise system, and who want to come to Washington to govern and not just shut the place down.”
On its policy agenda, the chamber seems to be taking a long view, laying foundations for 2017 and beyond.
Though the group backs the TPP agreement, Donohue and Bruce Josten, who is the chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, both said the administration needs to make some modifications for it to pass muster on the Hill and in the business community. Josten said it was possible, though unlikely, that Congress would vote on the 12-nation deal before the November elections.
“One thing you don’t want to do is put something like that on the floor and fail,” Josten said.
Donohue also said the chamber would push for a major overhaul of tax laws and entitlement programs, though he conceded such measures were unlikely to pass this year.