By Maria Saporta
There was lots of patting on the back at he Rotary Club of Atlanta’s luncheon Monday with Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as the keynote speaker.
Donohue was introduced by Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, who said Donohue was “making an incredible difference in Washington.”
Williams also told a story of when Donohue, president and CEO of the American Trucking Association, was being considered for the top chamber job in 1997.
He visited with Oz Nelson, then CE0 of Atlanta-based UPS (think brown trucks) , who told Donohue that he could be a catalyst in building the business organization.
Williams said that at the time, the annual budget of the U.S. Chamber was $50 million. It now has grown to $250 million.
The U.S. Chamber also has been building a much more visible political profile. In 2010, it raised $60 million to help elect members of Congress who were friendlier to business.
There was another Atlanta connection. The chairman of the U.S. Chamber during was Atlantan Tom Bell, former CEO of Cousins Properties and now executive chairman of SecurAmerica, who has just ended his term heading the organization.
Donohue, however, said Bell wasn’t going anywhere. “He’ll be chairman of the executive committee, and he’ll be around another six years,” Donohue said. “He’s a talented executive who I have known for 35 years.”
Donohue also praised Williams.
“There’s no better regional chamber in the country, and there’s not a better manager of a regional chamber,” Donohue said of Williams. “He is the best, and you’ve got him.”
Then Donohue gave his assessment of business nationally — unemployment is too high, growth for the year is expected to be at about 3 percent, about two million jobs will be created, and the federal government is all to eager to implement new regulations.
“Major corporations are sitting on $2 trillion,” Donohue said, adding that they are cautious about investing those dollars because of the uncertainty of new rules and regulations. “People are holding onto their money.”
With the potential “explosion” of regulations, Donohue said the U.S. Chamber has its own law firm that regularly sues the federal government in an effort to protect the nation’s business interests.
Surprisingly, Donohue did advocate for tax increase. “I do want to increase the federal gas tax,” he said. “We haven’t done that in 18 years.”
Because vehicles have become so much more fuel efficient, drivers — including truckers — have been paying about half of what they used to pay in gasoline taxes. More revenue is needed to properly maintain the nation’s roads and highways. Donohue proposed increasing the gas tax by 5 cents a year for four years.
To those who would oppose such a gas tax increase, Donohue’s message was simple. “Don’t pay it,” he said. “Stay home.”
For much of his talk, Donohue was quite critical of the Obama administration. But he did praise the work that Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE (General Electric), is doing as head of Obama’s economic advisory panel.
In one of the funnier moments during his Rotary talk, Donohue was asked if Congress was going to raise the debt ceiling.
Yes, it will be raised, Donohue answered, mainly because the country can not afford to not pay its bills. To those newly-elected representatives who say they aren’t going to raise the debt ceiling and will shut down government, Donohue said the U.S. Chamber has its own message: “We’ll get rid of you.”
He then went on to praise U.S. House Speaker John Boehner for his Congressional leadership.
“He’s growing into his shorts,” Donohue said. “He’s put on his big boy pants.”