Congress

In major shift, Chamber of Commerce to rate lawmakers on bipartisanship

Change reflects business community’s frustrations with crisis governing

Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue says lawmakers should be “rewarded for reaching across the aisle — not punished.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a frequent ally of Republicans in Congress, will revamp its criteria for rating and endorsing lawmakers, relying more on bipartisanship in an attempt to rebuild the governing-focused political center, the group announced Thursday.

It marks the first major change in 40 years in how the nation’s biggest business lobby tabulates lawmakers’ support for the business community, said Thomas Donohue, the chamber’s longtime president. The new method will offer 20 percent credit for bipartisan work and leadership on what the chamber considers “good legislation,” even if such bills never come to a vote. The remaining 80 percent will come from votes.

The change reflects the U.S. business community’s growing frustration with a pattern of crisis governing, characterized in part by the ongoing partial government shutdown, as well as a rising populist wing in the Republican Party that has rocked long-standing political alliances especially on such matters as trade and immigration.

New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer was instrumental in helping the business lobby come up with the new system, chamber sources said.

The two-term Democrat said the chamber, which endorsed him in 2018, asked for his thoughts on redoing the scorecard.

“I said, ‘You need to give more credit for those who are working across the aisle … especially in this era of divided government,” said Gottheimer, a co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “I’m very pleased they recognized the importance of bipartisanship.”

The chamber’s political operation spent more than $7 million in outside expenditures during the 2018 election cycle, with $6 million supporting Republican candidates, $1 million spent to defeat Democrats and less than $500,000 spent to defeat Republicans, according to a tabulation from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“Lawmakers should be rewarded for reaching across the aisle — not punished,” Donohue said Thursday during his annual “State of American Business” address. He added that “governing by crisis” is no way to do the nation’s business.

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Rebuilding the trust

Donohue and his deputy, Neil Bradley, said the new rubric aimed to restore a breakdown in trust that Americans have in both business and governmental institutions.

“We’re revamping how we operate, how we judge lawmakers, to encourage them to work together because that’s how you begin to rebuild trust between parties, in the institutions of government, in the free enterprise system,” Bradley said. “We all kind of have a role to play here in rebuilding that trust.”

The ongoing partial government shutdown, now into its fourth week, is having the opposite effect. It may have serious and mounting economic consequences, including for business community priorities such as rolling back government regulations, the chamber’s lobbyists said.

“It is absolutely slowing down and in some cases bringing to a halt the de-regulatory activity of the agencies, including the EPA,” said Bradley during a news conference after Donohue’s speech. “Administrations only have so many days; you can’t get days back. So if you’ve lost 20 days where you’re supposed to be working on a process of moving a regulation through the pipeline, you’re never going to get those back.”

Without putting the blame on either President Donald Trump or lawmakers, Donohue reiterated his group’s entreaty to both sides to end the shutdown, which is about more than just the $5 billion that Trump wants for a new barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The chamber favors a comprehensive immigration overhaul, calling the issue “sensitive” and “politically fraught.”

Businesses, he noted, must have a steady supply of employees. The group wants protection for so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors, as well as more resources to secure the border, he said.

Fuel tax 

Additionally, in outlining the chamber’s policy agenda for 2019, Donohue said the group would work to prod along a major overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure, including a “modest” increase to the motor vehicle fuel user fee, or tax, which has not been increased in 25 years. Bradley noted he believed such a measure could pass the House and Senate with bipartisan support.

The chamber plans to offer cash prizes, totaling $25,000, for other ideas for funding sources for infrastructure projects, Donohue said.

The chamber will also focus on cybersecurity efforts, he said, as well as a federal data privacy bill, offering companies one good rule as opposed to different, state-by-state “50 separate rules” with which to contend.

The revamped criteria for the chamber’s lawmaker ratings was not the only area where the group appeared to take a softer tone on some traditionally partisan policy debates.

Donohue, for example, indicated that the chamber would take a somewhat measured approach on Democratic proposals to increase the federal minimum wage.

“In times past, we always would say, ‘Well, wait a minute,’” Donohue said. “Look, these are different times, and we’re going to listen. We’re not going out and opposing. But some states have got legitimate concerns here.”

Donohue offered praise for the Trump administration’s work to roll back regulations and to reduce the corporate tax rate in the 2017 overhaul, but the chamber president also said he was concerned that “free speech is under assault at home and abroad.”

Donohue, who is in his early 80s and has run the chamber since 1997, has fielded questions about his possible retirement for years. But he may have included a clue about how he feels on the subject in his policy address.

“Older Americans should have incentives to work well past 65,” he said.

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