The State of American Business Is Fed Up
January 18, 2023
"Business can't be the only thing that works in this country. We need a government that also works."
What is the state of American business? That’s the question the U.S. Chamber traditionally answers at this annual event. And we’re able to answer it because we listen to you all year long—local chambers, AmChams, mom and pop shops, Fortune 500 companies, and everything in between—the full spectrum of the American business community.
And what so many of you tell us is that the state of your own business is strong. But the state of the economy is fragile. And confidence in our government to do the right thing is low.
In fact, we’ve heard this mixed sentiment so much that we gave it a name: “second-hand pessimism…” And the risk is that second-hand pessimism becomes first-hand—that fears about the economy, compounded by doubt in Washington, push businesses to act in a way that turns those concerns into reality.
Look, businesses are inherently optimistic—we wouldn’t take risks if we weren’t. We have to fight back against that creeping pessimism. America is a great country, capable of doing big things and surmounting big challenges. And today, business demands better from our government. Because when it comes to Washington, the state of American business is fed up.
We Need a Government That Works
The polarization, the gridlock, the overreach, and the inability to act smartly and strategically for our future is making it harder for all of us to do our jobs, fulfill our roles, and move this country forward.
For a long time at the Chamber, we’ve said that “Business is the one thing that really works in this country.” And we say it as a point of pride. Business works because it has to. The world needs the food we grow, the medicines we invent, the jobs we create. It needs the products and services that improve daily life, the technologies that connect people and communities, the innovations that solve global problems.
When you are hit with 40-year high inflation, you still have to pay your workers, buy your supplies, set your pricing strategy, and make ends meet. When you face a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, chances are your business is needed more, not less—whether to keep people working or keep society running. When you stare down a potential recession, you have to make smart plans, and sometimes, hard choices.
If you’re a business operating today, those are the kinds of things you innovate and adapt and lead through. Because you can and you do—because you have to—business works. That’s why you’re strong.
But, ladies and gentlemen, business can’t be the only thing that works in this country.
We need a government that also works. A government that rejects gridlock and chooses governing. A government that can partner with the private sector on our biggest challenges and can engage globally to advance America’s interests, and the world’s. A government that limits itself to the work only it can do—no more and no less.
We need a government that can fulfill its role of setting the conditions for our strength and our success. So businesses can grow and innovate. So individuals can strive and achieve. So families and communities can rise and prosper. So America can lead and compete.
But today, there are too many instances where government just isn’t working.
When a border crisis allows millions to cross illegally into our country, but we can’t get visas processed for engineers and nurses that businesses are desperate to hire and communities need—government isn’t working.
When you’ve got the most significant new investment in infrastructure in a generation and businesses ready to build, but projects can’t get approved—government isn’t working.
When energy policy is reduced to a false, binary choice between energy security and energy transition, one or the other—government isn’t working.
When regulations are driven by ideological agendas and imposed on business without transparency, accountability, or clarity—government isn’t working.
When Washington dysfunction allows foreign countries to write rules for the global economy that discriminate against American companies—government isn’t working.
When indifference on trade not only limits our economic potential but threatens our geopolitical posture—government isn’t working.
And when governmentitself is seen as a source of risk for businesses, it’s clearly not working.
Every year public companies must report risks to their business operations: everything from changes in consumer demand and impairments to their brand and reputation to shifts in government policy. The Chamber went back to look at the annual disclosures for the S&P 500 for the last decade. During that period, mentions of non-public policy risks were largely flat, but mentions of government agencies and policies skyrocketed by 30%.
Let me say that again: the only risk that businesses say is rising—is getting worse—is the risk that comes from our own government.
And that’s why, today, at the State of American Business, you’re going to hear me talk a lot about the state of our government.
We’re locked in a cycle of hyper-partisanship and political power swings. Ten of the past 12 elections have been “change” elections. Both political parties promise they’ll do the big, hard things when they gain full control and can do it their way, without the give-and-take that comes from working across the aisle. The other party promises to undo those things when they get a majority in Congress, which often turns out to be in the very next election.
Beyond the deep frustration, what does this really mean? It means businesses don’t have the clarity or the certainty to plan past the next political cycle. It means our country won’t be able to advance an agenda that extends beyond two to four years, or pass the policies needed to position us for our future.
Late last year, the Chamber asked our board members what emerging threats or challenges they’re most worried about. And there was almost a level of despair over the lack of national leadership to solve complex problems and outcompete our adversaries.
An Agenda for American Strength
Ladies and gentlemen, America is a great nation, and we can do better than this. We have to do better than this.
And I am optimistic that we will. Because there are people in our government—allies and champions of business—who are also fed up. People the Chamber supported, endorsed, helped elect, and will work with to turn things around. They have promised to be work horses, not show horses, and we will hold them to that.
There are people who are passionately advancing ideals and advocating on behalf of their constituents and our country. People who understand that noise and outrage may grab headlines and get clicks, but it’s common sense and compromise that get results. People who know that good ideas and vigorous debate are the pathways to progress. People who appreciate the urgency of this moment and can channel it into meaningful action. People who will hold the line against the extremes. We need those people to stand firm and steadfast.
Despite the chaos we’ve seen, I believe we can turn it around. Because we have to. There are big challenges and big opportunities that demand leadership on the part of our policymakers and partnership between government and business.
Business is ready—we’re not waiting. We’re putting forward a plan because that’s what business does…that’s why business works.
Today, the U.S. Chamber is calling for an “Agenda for American Strength.” An agenda that will not only help us navigate the present moment but steer our country to the brighter, stronger future that we expect—and future generations deserve.
An agenda that affirms America’s position as a global power for good, supporting free people, free enterprise, and free markets the world over. An agenda that unleashes the innovating, problem-solving power of business to address society’s greatest challenges. An agenda that lifts our middle class and renews the American Dream and modernizes it for the next generation.
An agenda we can be proud of, that we can rally around, and that our country can make progress on this year; in this Congress; at this vital moment in history.
America is a great and capable nation; and business and government, together, have to get behind a plan to do the work to advance it.
First, we must bolster America’s strength by building. Our nation’s future will be as strong, resilient, agile, and competitive as the platform on which it’s built. In 2021—after 25 years of advocacy by the Chamber and our allies—Republicans and Democrats came together and made a once-in-a-generation investment to restore our infrastructure to the modern marvel it once was. Historic investments in roads and bridges, public transit, clean drinking water and wastewater facilities, broadband access, climate resilience—all to improve life in your communities and to drive growth in your economies and to improve productivity for your businesses. It’s time to put that investment to work. It’s time to start building.
Here is one essential, transformational thing Congress can do right awayto unlock this potential: pass meaningful permitting reform.
Right now, the process is broken and it’s blocking progress. Pass permitting reform and make it possible to build. Make it feasible for businesses to invest. Make it affordable to start and finish projects. Make the approval process faster than the construction timeline. There is bipartisan agreement on permitting reform. Now we need bipartisan action.
America is a great nation. We must build and modernize and do it with speed, efficiency, and safety.
Next, we must bolster America’s strength through people. Our nation’s future depends on how we attract global talent, how we expand labor participation, how we upskill today’s workers, and how we educate tomorrow’s.
Let’s start by fixing America’s outrageously broken immigration system. Think about this—while record numbers cross the border illegally, legal migration has dropped to modern lows. When I talk to our state and local chamber partners along the border, they describe the humanitarian crisis gripping their towns with little to no help from the federal government. And when I talk to businesses who are dealing with critical worker shortages, they tell me how they can’t get visas processed to hire the workers they needed yesterday. America can do better than this.
Last year, with the strong support and input of the Chamber, there were meaningful bipartisan talks on proposals to secure the border, expand E-Verify, protect Dreamers, and increase the number of employment-based visas—crucial steps to get American businesses the talent they need, when they need it. This year, let’s get the deal done.
And let’s ensure Americans have the skills, the opportunity, and the incentive to fill open jobs today and prepare the next generation for the jobs of tomorrow. If we don’t do both, the worker shortage will become a permanent feature of our economy. It will fuel inflation now and into the future and stand as a barrier to long-term growth and competitiveness.
Here are three ways the government can support businesses, workers, and families immediately:
Build on progress made in the end-of-year bill to improve access to childcare and get parents who have been forced to put their careers on hold back in the workforce.
Incentivize work, including work requirements for capable adults drawing government benefits.
And help end the bias toward higher education being the only pathway to success by expanding access and financing to training programs that lead to good jobs.
America is a great nation. We must solve the worker shortage today andbuild the workforce of the future.
We must bolster America’s strength through energy. Our nation’s—and the world’s—security depends on our ability to power our economy and our communities today while also transitioning to a low-carbon future.
American energy production delivers economic advantages to U.S. families and businesses; it heats homes, powers the electric grid, and fuels our transport; it helps meet global demand, protect our allies, and diminish the economic strength of aggressors like Russia; and because our energy is far cleaner than most, its use results in substantial emissions reductions.
In the past year, soaring gasoline prices and the war in Ukraine opened many of our leaders’ eyes to these realities. The single most important thing Washington can do this year is to send long-term signals to energy producers to give them the confidence and certainty they need to invest here in the U.S. Let’s accelerate permitting for new exploration and production, quickly finalize a 5-year program for offshore leasing, and make it easier to build energy infrastructure.
American ingenuity is also crucial to addressing climate resilience whilepowering economic growth. What steps can we take this year? Again, permitting reform. It’s needed to build anything, including the historic investments in clean energy projects authorized by Congress. Those investments won’t be made if it takes 7 to 10 years to get a permit.
Additionally—and most importantly—leverage private sector leadership. Government has to partner with business when developing climate and energy solutionsbecause they will be invented, financed, scaled, and deployed by business and government together.
America is a great nation. We must meet the needs of our economy today and lead the transition to the future. It’s not a binary choice. We can and must do both.
We must bolster America’s strength through global leadership. Our nation’s future depends on our engagement in the world—it’s how we protect our national security, promote our values, unlock economic growth for American businesses, and lower prices for American families. By any measure, when America retreats, others race to fill the vacuum. And there are three key areas where we need to strongly assert our leadership.
We have to boost trade. When we trade and invest with other countries, we are not only supporting jobs and creating opportunities here in the U.S., we are deepening strategic partnerships and advancing free enterprise both here and abroad.
Today we have trade deals with 20 countries, and it has been 10 years since we’ve added a single new partner to that list. Meanwhile, other countries have inked 100 new trade deals without us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you are standing still, you are falling behind.
Here’s how we reverse the downward trend on trade quickly:
Resume negotiations on a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. The UK is our closest ally, and we’ve already laid the groundwork for a meaningful deal.
Give the U.S. a stronger foothold in the vitally important African continent, where competitors like China are already making strategically significant inroads. This can be achieved through bilateral agreements, like the one we’ve already started negotiating with Kenya, and supporting Africa’s continental free trade area.
Aim higher on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. We applaud the administration for launching IPEF, but we need an ambitious outcome—with strong rules on digital trade and, crucially, market access.
We have to set global standards and global policy. American innovation, creativity, and investment have created a template for prosperity that other countries follow. But overregulation by foreign governments puts it all at risk.
From Europe to Asia, some governments have a ‘regulate first, weigh the cost later’ approach. We’ve seen the spread of digital regulations and taxes that target American companies almost exclusively—and these moves threaten to stifle the sectors that have emerged as the chief drivers of global economic growth. We’ve seen the spread of bans on GMOs —despite scientific evidence of their safety—threatening to make it harder to feed a hungry world. We’ve seen nuclear plants shuttered at the very moment their safe, clean energy is needed.
The Chamber has been warning about the global consequences of overregulation for years—and we need our government leaders to add their voices and amp up the pressure in the world’s regulatory councils now. Regulatory overreach endangers the dynamism that a fragile world economy will need in 2023 and beyond.
And on critical priorities where regulation is needed—such as data privacy or artificial intelligence—America should set the global standard and Congress should pass good legislation here, not simply leaving it to places like Brussels.
And we must be strong and smart when it comes to China. Failure to strike a balance could undermine our security, our economy, our competitiveness, and our future.
On China’s threats to our national security and values, we must be resolute. We support the U.S. government’s coordinated efforts with allies to address China’s human rights abuses and economic coercion. Similarly, we must continue to stand strong against China’s unfair trading practices, intellectual property theft, and digital protectionism.
On China’s value as a commercial partner, we must be practical. Our commercial relationship with the world’s second-largest economy is worth nearly $1 trillion annually. It supports hundreds of thousands of American jobs. We can deploy targeted export controls and other safeguards in sectors where our national security is at risk withoutcutting off the wider trade flow that is so important to our own economy.
And we should continue to engage with China on global challenges when it is in our interest to do so—from combatting nuclear proliferation to promoting global economic stability.
Here are two key steps our leaders could take this year to advance a sophisticated strategy on China:
Use the House Select Committee on China to forge a serious, bipartisan approach. An approach that is sensitive to the differences between areas of real concern—like semiconductors—and areas of limited or no concern—like beef.
Get back to the negotiating table. The Biden administration must continue to pursue a trade policy with China that addresses the policies that are harmful to U.S. businesses.
America is a great nation. We must be strong and protect our interests at home and engage, lead, and compete in the world.
Finally, we must bolster America’s strength through the rule of law. Our nation’s future depends on our ability to protect and preserve it—right here at home. So often we think of the “rule of law” as a challenge somewhere else.
But what about the ways our legal system is being hijacked by the trial lawyers to extort big payouts from business? What about the trial bar’s relentless efforts to ban arbitration, even though it is a faster, fairer way to resolve disputes than costly litigation? What about the explosive growth in third-party litigation funding that is fueling lawsuit abuse?
These are not features of a fair or effective civil justice system, and the Chamber will be pushing our leaders to address them this year—starting with federal and state reforms to go after litigation funders.
And what about the scourge of crime sweeping major American cities? Customers won’t patronize businesses where they don’t feel safe. Businesses won’t open or stay in communities where the threat is high. Corporations won’t invest in cities where lawlessness is left unchecked.
At the Chamber, we know what a job means to a community. And when businesses are forced to leave, crime fills the vacuum and harms the people in that community in numerous ways—from personal safety and economic opportunity to food security and health outcomes.
On this growing crisis, I am glad to say that Washington is making progress. At the end of last year, lawmakers heeded the Chamber’s call and passed the Inform Act—legislation to make it harder to sell stolen goods online. Local and state governments must also enact policy changes to help law enforcement and prosecutors go after criminals and keep their communities and businesses safe. And we hope all of you will push them to do it.
America is a great nation. We must bolster our rule of law to underpin the freedom and safety that allows businesses to grow and communities to thrive.
Keeping America Strong
Clearly, there is a long and meaningful list of policy priorities that our lawmakers should tackle, things that only they can do. There is an equally long list for what government shouldn’t do—and overregulation is at the top. It is notthe role of government to direct the behavior of business, redistribute power in our economy, or undermine the competition that fuels free enterprise.
Unprecedented regulatory overreach has accelerated over the past two years. When I gave this speech last year, I pledged that if government didn’t stop getting in the way through overregulation, we would lead the fight to stop it. And that’s why the Chamber sued the FTC, the SEC, and the CFPB last year. And we won’t hesitate to do it again if that’s what’s needed to protect business interests, preserve innovation and competition, and position our economy for growth.
This “Agenda for American Strength” is aspirational and forward-looking. Nobody starts a business without a plan. Likewise, our leaders should be looking beyond this Congress and this political cycle as they set the policies that can set us up for long-term success. But this agenda is also practical and actionable. It outlines significant things government can and should do to support business, improve lives, and strengthen our country’s competitiveness and future, starting now.
Some will say, “…but divided government.” “We can’t get anything done.” In fact, divided government, when bipartisanship is required to accomplish anything at all, has historically been a time when meaningful policymaking takes place. If what we’ve got is divided government for at least the next two years, we will lean into it and put it to work for our country.
Let me close with a message to our partners in government today: Do your jobs, so we can do ours. Make government work, so business can keep working…so we can keep doing the things that society needs, expects, and trusts us to do.
America is a great and capable nation, and together, we must do the big thinking and take the smart steps to secure the future we deserve and strengthen this country we all love.
America is strong when all of us—business owners, entrepreneurs, workers, government leaders, lawmakers—know our roles and fulfill them with vision and purpose.
America is strong when we demand excellence from ourselves and each other.
America is strong when we reject pessimism and prove the naysayers wrong.
America is strong when we take all of the remarkable advantages our nation has been blessed with and put them to work for the betterment of people at home and abroad.
America is strong when we live up to our highest ideals and greatest potential—and when we stand as a beacon to the world.
America is strong when we remember we are a great nation that can do big things, hard things.
That’s what American businesses and workers do all day, every day, all across this country. And we will accept nothing less from our leaders.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are a can-do nation, and this is a must-do moment.