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Commerce’s call to action

In MIT talk, head of U.S. Chamber of Commerce outlines business-oriented policy agenda.
Thomas J. Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Thomas J. Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Thomas J. Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called for a new push for immigration reform as part of a larger business-oriented economic agenda in remarks at MIT yesterday.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce favors changes in immigration policy in order to, among other things, help highly trained workers with technical skills join the U.S. workforce more easily. However, as Donahue noted, immigration policy is the subject of charged debate, which means reform may not come easily.

“Immigration is a highly emotional issue,” Donahue observed, while making the case that America has been strengthened by welcoming immigrants. Indeed, he added, immigrants are integral to the fabric of the country.

“Everybody here is an immigrant,” Donahue said in his talk, titled “An American Jobs and Growth Agenda to Revitalize Our Economy,” held in MIT’s Building 51 on Thursday afternoon.

In addition to a new immigration bill, Donahue listed a handful of other issues as top priorities for the Chamber of Commerce, including budget issues, health care, cybersecurity and infrastructure.

Businesses, Donahue estimated, are “sitting on $2 trillion” because they are waiting to find out how the federal budget, as well as the regulatory landscape, will affect their expenditures. Companies uncertain of the future fiscal and regulatory landscape, Donahue asserted, are in effect saying, “‘When I figure that out, then I’ll hire people.’”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants better cooperation between business and government to fortify the nation’s cybersecurity, Donahue said; the group also advocates for major improvements in the nation’s infrastructure, which it says will more than pay off in terms of economic growth. The organization estimates that every dollar spent on infrastructure produces almost $2 in economic output within two years, and that better roads, bridges and public transportation could save families roughly $1,000 a year on average.

In a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Donahue was asked about the possibility of a tax-code overhaul in which some kinds of loopholes and deductions might be removed, but lower standard rates introduced. He responded by saying he thought it could happen, but pointed out some of the difficulties in tackling that project, owing to the diverse nature of the business community and the deductions supported by various constituencies.

“Businesses that I represent, they differ with each other all time,” Donahue said. “I think we’re simplifying it, I think we’re going to limit the amount of deductions that you can have.” As hard as it might be to push legislation through, he added, “The great thing about this country is, we can all petition the government.”

Donahue has been in his current position since 1997. He previously served for 13 years as president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations.

In a set of informal remarks about his role at the beginning of the talk, Donahue said he had “one of the five best jobs in America,” but added that he had “no delusions of grandeur,” joking that at some point he will become a “formerly important person.”

The talk was sponsored by MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics as part of its Global Leadership Lecture Series.

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