By Peter Schroeder - 07/11/11 08:23 PM EDT
As he has in the past, Donohue left no room for doubt as to the chamber's position on the debt limit.
"Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling, and it must do so without delay," he said. "Failure to do so would have grave consequences for Main Street businesses and for every family in this country."
But in a reflection of ongoing talks to hike the debt ceiling, Donohue also called on Congress to pair that hike with major steps to reduce the deficit, starting with spending cuts and entitlement reforms.
"We're calling upon the leaders of both parties to make tough choices and to come to closure," he said.
General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who also chairs the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, hit similar notes on "government-induced uncertainty" and "activist regulations," but also put more on the private sector to help pull the economy upwards.
"We need to act, and the private sector can do more," he said.
He also criticized Washington from a slightly different angle, seeming exasperated at the difficulty of accomplishing much of note within the political sphere. He said one of the goals of the council was to find non-legislative ways to boost job creation.
"We're trying to operate around Washington gridlock," he said.
Immelt was similarly impatient on the debt limit, saying policymakers had to strike a deal, even if everyone isn't happy with it.
"We need certainty about the debt ceiling, and we need it now," he said. "We never get 100 percent of our way when you do a deal. There just has to be a deal done. And the sooner we can do it, that just takes one load of uncertainty off the private sector."
Another major issue for both CEOs was a package of three pending trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, warning that 380,000 jobs were at stake if the deals were not approved by lawmakers.
Those deals have encountered some opposition over the potential inclusion of assistance for workers who lost jobs to foreign trade, but Donohue said it would be "criminal" to not get them approved.
Immelt said there was no question the deals had to be done as soon as possible.
"I don't know why we can't get some of these most simplistic things done," he said. "It's time. Let's go."
On the housing front, Donohue struck a somewhat dire tone, arguing that more foreclosures need to occur before the housing market can turn around, and criticizing Washington efforts to provide relief.
"Through their actions over the last two decades, the politicians have already proved they can help royally mess up the housing sector," he said. "Government should be smarter this time around and avoid the temptation to endlessly prop up those who, sadly, will never be able to afford the homes they are in now."
The chamber bolstered its case of government overreach with a new survey of small businesses. Of the 1,409 surveyed, 84 percent said the economy was on the wrong track, with nearly half citing "economic uncertainty" and the debt and deficit as major challenges.
However, the poll included some optimistic nuggets as well: 61 percent believed their own small business was on the right track, and 39 percent believed their business's best days were ahead of it.
At a separate event on Monday at the AFL-CIO, economists, lawmakers and labor leaders discussed how to reduce the nation's persistently high level of unemployment.
“We have a jobs crisis of epic proportions, and in order to solve it we must create a movement of enormous proportions,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “This summer working people will be out holding politicians accountable. But that is just the beginning of what we must do. Workers and communities must work together for an economy built on good jobs.”
Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, suggested renewing the advanced energy manufacturing credit and the Build America Bonds program, which, he said, helped finance $181 billion in infrastructure projects in the past two years.
He also urged the Obama administration to take steps to stop China's currency manipulation, "which costs American workers hundreds of thousands of jobs."
Participants at the jobs summit urged congressional leaders to focus on improving the economy and supporting initiatives to help the middle class as the economic recovery remains sluggish.
"One of the keys to continuing our economic recovery is growth," said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). "By creating high-wage, high-skill jobs, we can grow our middle class and our economy, improve people's lives, and expand our tax base at the same time. My partners in the labor community know that job creation is the smartest investment we can make as a nation."
Congressional leaders and the Obama administration have been meeting daily to find a way forward on raising the nation's debt ceiling, while lawmakers in each party blame one another for not moving forward with job-creation legislation.
“We cannot get our fiscal house in order until we get America back to work,” said Heather Boushey, an economist for the Center for American Progress. “Yet the debt-ceiling conversation is happening even as the June jobs numbers show that the labor market is moving in the wrong direction. This should be a sobering wake-up call to policy makers that addressing the jobs crisis should be priority No. 1.”
Most of the participants were critical of the Republican push for less regulation and tax cuts; Democrats are pressing for raising revenue as a way to reduce the budget deficit.
Keeping tax breaks for certain sectors won't increase demand needed to drive consumer spending, 70 percent of economic activity, which is needed to accelerate the pace of the recovery, Franken said.
"The idea that those at the top who are richer than anyone has ever been in history — why they can’t pay a higher percentage in taxes is crazy."
Trumka has said that jobs should be the focus of Congress and the administration instead of "deficit hysteria."
In late June, The AFL-CIO said it will work with investors and businesses to help move $10 billion in the next five years into construction work that will create jobs.
The AFL-CIO is partnering with financial institutions, pension funds and money managers to promote infrastructure development, and pledged at least $20 million to retrofit buildings over the next 12 months.