The country's most influential lobbyist on Capitol Hill has called on lawmakers to pass a "significant" infrastructure package this year – and is offering cash for ideas on how to pay for it.
In his 20th annual "State of American Business" address in Washington, D.C. today, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Tom Donohue was encouraged by the Chamber's projections for 2019: 2.6 percent economic growth, inflation in the range of the Federal Reserve's 2 percent projection, and continued low unemployment.
In addition, he said, "rumblings of a recession just don't match up with reality. Even with all the challenges in Washington, uncertainties in the world, and fluctuations in the markets, strong economic conditions are expected to hold steady for the foreseeable future."
But he is also concerned that many of the nation's highways, bridges, ports, and waterways that have "literally moved the American Dream" have outlived their lifespan and are in dire need of upgrading.
Donahue has made the case for infrastructure investment many times in the past, but what's missing this year, he said, is a sense of urgency because "things are only going to get worse."
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As the top lobbying spender in 2018 ($69 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics), Donahue's organization is looking to ride some of the momentum being created by a new Congress that has made infrastructure a priority.
Congressional Democrats are seeking a vehicle on which to attach new infrastructure spending, either through an appropriations deal that could result from negotiating an end to the partial federal government shut-down, a reauthorization of the surface transportation bill (known as the FAST Act), or in a free-standing bill.
But even if Democrats were to move legislation, the big question will be how to get agreement across the aisle on how pay for it. Donohue repeated his support for increasing the federal gas tax, which he proposed in his speech last year hiking by 25 percent.
"I've also said that the Chamber is open to viable alternatives – we haven't heard too many other ideas since last year," he said. "So we're going to put some money on the table. The Chamber will be offering cash prizes totaling $25,000 to those who can come up with the best, most viable ideas for long-term sustainable funding sources for infrastructure."
The funding challenge is open to students, business leaders, academics, "and the people out there actually doing the building – everyone," he said.
"Now that we've struck a deal with Canada and Mexico, the administration must also make good on its repeated promise to remove the steel and aluminum tariffs that were imposed in the heat of negotiations," Donohue asserted. "This would be an encouraging sign for all of our other partners, including those we're pursuing new market-opening agreements with, like Japan, the EU, and the UK."
With regard to China, he noted that while the U.S. Chamber supports negotiations over unfair trade policies from Beijing that hinder U.S. business, he's against a trade war.
"Let me be very clear. Tariffs are taxes paid for by American families and American businesses, not by foreigners. Instead of undermining our own economy, let's work with our allies to apply pressure on China and use the tools provided by the U.S. trade and international laws that we helped create."
Donohue also called for ending the partial government shutdown, which is beginning to effect various sectors that rely heavily on freight capacity such as agribusiness, and which could also threaten import clearance and other customs activities at ports and border crossings the longer it continues.
"Governing by crisis is no way to do the nation's business," he said. "Our leaders must responsibly fulfill their duties. And not just because it's their job to do so, but because dysfunction saps confidence, threatens growth, and consequently poses a threat to opportunity in this country."
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