A plan for economic renewal

Tom Donohue Contributor
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What a difference a year makes. In January 2010, we worried about the possibility of a double-dip recession. Today, the state of American business and our economy have improved. This is due to both the impressive resilience of our economy and the enactment of the tax relief package late last month. For these reasons, the U.S. Chamber projects that the economy will grow by 3.2% overall next year, picking up steam as the year progresses.

Although our economy is improving, the recovery is fragile and we still face many significant challenges. First and foremost is unemployment, which has now exceeded 9% for 20 consecutive months. That hasn’t happened since the 1930s. Next, our nation must contend with unprecedented competitive challenges as other countries race to implement pro-growth reforms. Finally, America faces unsustainable long-term financial burdens—massive deficits, runaway entitlements, and unfunded public employee obligations at all levels of government.

Overcoming these challenges requires a multifaceted approach. The immediate concern must be sustaining this recovery and putting Americans back to work. We must not, however, overlook the importance of pursuing fundamental reforms that will make our country more competitive in the global marketplace and enable us to tackle the long-term fiscal crisis.

Four areas will be among the business community’s priorities in 2011—reining in excessive regulations, expanding American trade, rebuilding our economic platforms, and reducing deficits and debt.

First, we must restrain excessive regulation while reforming the regulatory process. At the federal level alone, regulations already fill 150,000 pages of fine-print text and cost Americans $1.7 trillion a year. In recent years, we have seen an explosion of new regulatory activity that is simply unprecedented. This regulatory tsunami poses, in our view, the single biggest challenge to jobs, our global competitiveness, and the future of American free enterprise.

Second, we will fight to advance a pro-America trade agenda with the goal of doubling exports in five years and creating millions of new jobs. Many Americans, regrettably, think that trade agreements kill jobs—that foreign investment and immigration threaten our national sovereignty and U.S. jobs. To change these misperceptions, we’ll soon launch a major initiative to educate citizens and policymakers on trade that will clearly link global engagement to American jobs.

The third issue that we’re putting front and center this year is the need to rebuild America’s economic foundation—the platforms on which our society runs. Roads, bridges, rail and mass transit networks, airports, and air transport systems must be modernized. Broadband capacity, power generation, and water supplies must be expanded. At the same time, we must recommit ourselves to developing our human capital by reforming education and training programs.

Finally, businesses, like all Americans, must do their part to help address another defining challenge of our times—the expansion of government spending and entitlements, and with it, the explosion of government debt. Conventional wisdom says that no effort to address deficits will be considered until after the 2012 elections. We can’t wait that long. At the very least, a serious down payment on bringing deficits and debt under control should be made this year. The Chamber will support congressional efforts to reduce spending, even if we don’t like all the details.

The challenges facing us this year are big—but so are the opportunities. The economy is gaining some strength. We’ll see stronger job creation. And while the philosophical gap on some issues will be too wide and deep to bridge, I believe that our elected officials can find enough common ground—and enough shared enlightened self-interest—to make significant progress on ensuring that the American Dream is once again in our grasp. Throughout it all, the business community will lead the way.

Thomas J. Donohue is the CEO and president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.