Chamber takes victory lap, promises to keep fighting regulations

The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday offered a stinging critique of President Obama’s first two years in office in a major address to his board of directors.

The Chamber believes “America is a nation at risk” because of excessive regulation, high corporate taxes, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and massive debt brought about by excessive government spending, Chamber President Tom Donohue said.

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Donohue insisted the business lobby was ready to work with the White House, and he reiterated that the Chamber does not get involved in presidential elections and will not take sides in the 2012 race.

But he sounded like he was more in the mood to fight than to compromise.

“The biggest single threat to job creation facing us today is a regulatory tsunami of unprecedented force,” said Donohue, who specifically criticized the healthcare and financial regulatory overhauls that stand as the administration’s biggest victories.

He said the healthcare law would create 183 new agencies, commissions, panels and other bodies, while the financial bill would trigger 320 rulemakings. After his speech, Donohue linked regulations to the sluggish economy and the national unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, telling reporters that businesses were sitting on their cash because of uncertainty.

“We have never seen anything on this scale before. It defies all logic and common sense,” Donohue said in the speech. He promised the Chamber would add significant resources to its effort to stem the tide of regulations.

“We cannot allow this nation to move from a government of the people to a government of regulators. And we’re going to be engaged in this fight for years to come,” he promised.

Donohue’s criticisms come as the Chamber and White House enter a new era in Washington, with Republicans in control of the House, Democrats worried about losing the Senate in two years and both parties already thinking about the presidential election in 2012.

Two years ago, the Chamber vowed to work with the White House. The group did support the economic stimulus package and has defended the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.

But it has also been a major player in opposing the White House on its most cherished legislative achievements of healthcare and financial reform. The battle continued during the midterm campaign, when the Chamber spent millions to defeat Democrats and ensure it had a legislative branch that could further curb Obama’s agenda.

Both sides at times suggest that they can and do work together.

Donohue told reporters after his speech that the Chamber is constantly working with Cabinet officials, and that the rancor between his organization and the White House is “sort of overblown.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday he thinks there are some issues, such as trade and jobs, where the White House and Chamber may have common positions. On such issues, “we’re pleased and happy to work with them,” he said.

But there seem to be more issues that tear the two sides apart.

Donohue called on Congress to extend all of the Bush tax cuts and expiring business provisions in the lame-duck session, though this would add to the deficit. The administration wants to extend only tax cuts for families with annual incomes under $250,000.

He faulted the government for policies that allow the U.S. to sit “on vast supplies of our own domestic energy” that he said, if prudently developed, would improve the economy and boost national security.

While the Chamber has backed the administration’s efforts to move a trade deal with South Korea, it has been frustrated that the White House has held back agreements with Panama and Colombia. Donohue said the Chamber wants to see “bold policy action” on this issue.

Donohue also took time at the beginning of his address to note the results of the election, which Obama has described as a “shellacking.”

The Chamber payed for ads critical of Democratic leadership in Washington and endorsed scores of House Republican candidates.

“We spoke about the dangers of a bigger, more intrusive government, about the essential role of free enterprise to the American Dream and about the overriding challenge of creating 20 million jobs over the next 10 years,” Donohue said. “The American people responded in a historic way.”

The White House criticized the Chamber’s spending, arguing that advertisements might have been supported in part by foreign donors. The Chamber said those charges were unfounded, and Donohue vowed Wednesday that it would stay in politics.

There are those in Washington who “probably wish that the Chamber would just go away, or at least quiet down,” Donohue said.

“But we’re not going anywhere, except up,” he continued, promising that the Chamber would pursue “victories” for the business community.