By Matt Egan, CNN Business
US Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark is pushing back against Senator Elizabeth Warren and others who blame high inflation on dominant corporations.
“They’re just plain wrong,” Clark told CNN in a rare interview. “We’ve had decades of low inflation. There wasn’t some magic burst of consolidation in the last month or the last quarter. That’s not what’s going on.”
Clark, the first woman to lead America’s largest business lobbying group, instead blames the 40-year high in inflation on a series of other forces unrelated to corporate concentration.
“We know what’s happening. We know there’s a worker shortage driving wages up. We know there’s an energy shortage. There’s a housing shortage,” Clark said.
The Chamber of Commerce CEO argued there are meaningful steps that could be taken to help ease the pressure on prices, including lifting tariffs, boosting legal immigration and focusing on domestic energy production.
“There’s real work we could do, or we could keep politicizing it,” Clark said.
Of course, the Chamber of Commerce represents some major businesses that have benefited from the same corporate power issues that Warren has flagged.
Elizabeth Warren responds
Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, has repeatedly warned that concentrated corporate power has helped create conditions for price gouging.
Warren responded to the Chamber of Commerce CEO’s comments by pointing out that more than 75% of US industries, from agriculture to healthcare, have less competition than 20 years ago.
“Giant corporations are taking advantage of supply chain challenges to jack up prices and pad their profits,” Warren told CNN through a spokesperson.
The Democrat cited a study from progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute that found fatter corporate profit margins have driven more than half of price increases since 2020.
“The American people know that big businesses and Washington lobbyists are putting profits above families,” Warren said, “and I’m fighting every day to lower costs for working people by cracking down on price gouging and breaking up corporate monopolies.”
A White House official told CNN that corporate concentration is a “decades-old issue” and no one in the administration is saying it is the central driver of today’s inflation. The official said President Joe Biden plans to say in a speech on Tuesday the two central causes of inflation are the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“But that doesn’t mean that large corporations should be let off the hook for anti-competitive practices that have driven prices up over a long period of time,” the White House official said, pointing specifically to prescription drugs, hearing aids, internet bills and shipping costs. “At the very least, corporations earning record profits while raising prices should pay their fair share in taxes.”
Pricey childcare and the worker shortage
Meanwhile, the shortage of workers continues to be a major concern for both business leaders and politicians.
The Labor Department said last week that the number of job openings in the United States rose to 11.5 million in March, the highest level since tracking began in December 2000.
“This is the key issue that every CEO in America is talking about,” Clark said, adding that the worker shortage is at the heart of inflation and the supply chain mess.
The worker shortage is being driven by a confluence of factors, including Covid-related problems, early retirements and high childcare costs.
The Chamber of Commerce has called for states to use American Rescue Plan funds to help parents with childcare costs.
“It’s a really complicated issue that is keeping moms and dads out of the market. And too often, that burden falls to the women,” Clark said. “We have got to do everything we can to get people off the sidelines and working again.”
Build Back Better and Roe v. Wade
The Biden administration’s stalled Build Back Better Plan calls for the largest investment in childcare in US history. The plan’s framework proposed ensuring that middle-class families pay no more than 7% of their income on childcare.
The Chamber of Commerce helped lead the fight against passage of Build Back Better, warning tax hikes would hurt the economy.
Asked if the Chamber would support Build Back Better’s childcare proposals on a standalone basis, Clark was noncommittal.
“We would look at it,” she said. “We don’t like the big reconciliation tax-and-spending spree, everything in the Christmas tree, packages. But no doubt there are some proposals in there that are worthy of real debate and real discussion.”
Beyond childcare, Clark called for the United States to ramp up legal immigration to provide an influx of workers that companies need right now.
“We can secure our borders, like every great nation does, and increase legal immigration,” she said. “The loud voices that are pretending in this debate that these are binary choices are just not right.”
However, Clark declined to weigh in on another issue facing the workforce: a potential abortion ban if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
“It’s not something we’ve ever taken a position on,” Clark said, adding that she does not have a personal view on the controversial issue.
Asked about pledges from Amazon, Salesforce, Uber and other companies to cover employees’ travel costs to seek abortion care, Clark simply said, “Every company’s got to make their own decisions.”
Biden’s ‘mixed’ economic track record
The economy continues to drag down President Joe Biden’s poll numbers.
Just 34% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, according to a CNN poll released last week.
Clark declined to give Biden a letter grade on the economy, instead describing his impact as a “mixed bag.”
On the positive side, Clark praised the Biden’s efforts to enact bipartisan infrastructure legislation, an achievement former President Donald Trump tried and failed to attain. And she spoke highly of the open dialogue between the US Chamber and the White House.
“We have a respectful relationship. They call us, we call them. We meet with them a great deal,” Clark said. “When we disagree, we don’t surprise each other. We’re pretty upfront about what’s working and what isn’t.”
Clark singled out Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and National Economic Council director Brian Deese as Biden officials who have been very open to conversations, even when they don’t agree.
However, Clark expressed concern about what she described as the Biden administration’s “overregulation.” She specifically flagged comments from Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, who in September said her agency’s job is to “shape the distribution of power and opportunity across our economy.”
“That’s scary. We believe in the free market, not government-driven solutions,” Clark said.
And Clark urged the Biden administration to pursue a “bolder” trade agenda.
“The fact that we can’t get a US-UK trade deal done seems silly,” she said. “It just puts our families and our communities at a disadvantage and it doesn’t help our allies.”
Despite his attacks on big business, January 6th insurrection and the US-China trade war, Clark said Trump was “largely” pro-business.
“There’s a lot of credit to be given on deregulation and the tax agenda. Those are always very high on job creators’ minds,” Clark said.
Lawsuits to block Biden?
Looking ahead, the Chamber of Commerce CEO signaled the group is preparing for further battles with the White House in case the midterm election brings gridlock back to Washington.
Clark suggested that if Republicans retake one or both chambers of Congress, the Biden administration may be tempted to lean more into executive orders.
“Business has to be ready to use litigation and other means to reign them in,” Clark said, “to make sure they’re not exceeding their constitutional authority.”
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