After long focusing on Republican politicians to advance their pro-business agenda, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is changing tactics to rebuild a bipartisan middle ground to get things done in a divided Congress.
John Kirchner, manager of congressional and public affairs for the nationwide business group’s Midwest region, spoke Friday morning about the chamber’s policy goals and new political strategy at a gathering of about 50 local community and business leaders in Eau Claire.
“We are really trying to rebuild the middle,” he said.
The chamber’s shift reflects how some policies advanced by the extreme right are viewed by the group as anti-business and also that there must be bipartisanship to get new legislation approved.
While he lauded the regulatory rollbacks and tax cut spearheaded by the Trump administration, Kirchner said the president’s international trade policies involving China and other countries is having ill effects on businesses.
“One of the biggest threats to the economy is the trade wars we’re currently engaged in and the tariffs that keep expanding,” Kirchner said.
Despite claims by some politicians, he added that tariffs are indeed taxes that fall on U.S. consumers — individuals and businesses — that buy products from other countries.
November’s elections also ended four years of Republicans controlling both houses of Congress.
Democrats now have 235 seats in the House over the 199 spots held by Republican lawmakers.
The GOP has an edge in the Senate with 53 seats compared to 47 held by Democrats. However, Republicans lack the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.
The national chamber has modified how it rates lawmakers to determine which ones to support and endorse by adding positive marks to those who reach across the aisle.
“We’ve changed up our scorecard a little bit,” Kirchner said.
In addition to voting in favor of policies that align with the chamber’s agenda, the organization’s scorecards also recognize legislation where members of Congress worked with those in the opposite party.
Despite the current atmosphere of high partisanship, Kirchner is optimistic the two political parties will be able to come together this year on a few issues important to the business community, including rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
“This is one of those areas where Democrats and Republicans can get together,” Kirchner said.
Usually against raising taxes, the chamber is in the position of backing an increase in the federal gas tax, which hasn’t happened since 1993, to help pay for fixing U.S. roads and bridges.
“The reality is because the federal government hasn’t held up its end of the bargain, we’re seeing states increase their gas taxes,” Kirchner said.
Other areas where he can see the parties coming together include approving the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, working to cut prescription drug prices and reform immigration.
The Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored Kirchner’s visit as part of the local business group’s Eggs and Issues series of monthly presentations on regional, state and national issues.
The local chamber’s strategy for its political advocacy has long been to work with both parties at the state level to advance causes important to the Eau Claire area in the Capitol.
“Our goal will be to always remain in the middle,” said David Minor, president and CEO of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.
The strategy not only recognizes that the Chippewa Valley is represented by a mix of Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature, but also that a coalition of lawmakers is needed to advance the goals of the region in Madison.
Recent examples of those efforts include getting $15 million in state funding to help build a downtown Eau Claire arts center under former Gov. Scott Walker and now a push for a new $256 million science and health science building at UW-Eau Claire in the upcoming state budget.