Washington lawmakers are scheduled to bolt out of town later this month for their annual monthlong winter recess, marking the end of another year of missed opportunities.
Congress and the administration failed to bring closure to several pieces of business that would spark economic growth and job creation, while alleviating growing uncertainty in the business community. Here are Washington’s top five biggest failures in 2013, in no particular order:
Immigration reform: Prospects for a comprehensive immigration reform bill remain cloudy, but the president and Republican leaders say that they remain committed to fixing the nation’s broken immigration system.
Comprehensive immigration reform stalled over the summer after the Senate passed sweeping legislation to overhaul border security, require employer verification of workers’ status, and create a lengthy path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The House, meanwhile, has declined to put that bill to a vote, instead working on smaller pieces of immigration legislation.
Immigration reform remains a top priority for the U.S. Chamber. “America deserves a lawful, rational, and practicable immigration system that provides the labor we need at all skill levels while protecting the rights of citizens, businesses, the undocumented, and those legally pursuing citizenship,” says Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue.
Tax reform: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the current tax code is overly complex, impedes economic growth, and hurts America’s global competitiveness. But that’s where all agreement ends, and bipartisan efforts by the top two congressional tax writers have been hit by one roadblock after another, including the 16-day government shutdown, the last-minute scramble to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, and an all-consuming conference committee negotiation to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the fiscal year 2014 budget resolution.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) have publicly agreed on the fundamental principles of comprehensive tax reform: broaden the base, lower the rates, and simplify the code, all of which the Chamber strongly supports.
Entitlement reform: Entitlement spending remains the main driver of current and future deficits and high debt levels. It must be addressed. Today, the United States spends $1.6 trillion on just three of the nation’s entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In 10 years, the total price for these programs will soar to $3 trillion. Congress cannot continue kicking the can down the road.
The procedural hurdles involved in reforming entitlements, however, are significant. For example, in the Senate, any bills seeking to change Social Security provisions fall under the so-called Byrd rule, which means that they can be challenged by a single senator as inadmissible.
But regardless of how hard it is, it must be done. And with lawmakers discussing a long-term budget deal, it could be the best opportunity in years to address unsustainable entitlement spending and stabilize federal finances, according to the Chamber.
While no one expected Congress to enact tax reform and entitlement reform in 2013, the fact that there was no progress on either issue is disappointing.
Keystone XL: It is five years and counting on a presidential decision to approve a pipeline to transport Canadian oil sands crude oil to U.S. refineries.
Studies by the administration have shown that construction of Keystone XL would directly result in $3.3 billion in investment in the United States and support tens of thousands of American jobs across diversified sectors, which would, in turn, add billions of dollars to the national and regional economies. Yet environmentalists have held up approval of the pipeline.
In a letter to the president, business groups urged him to “approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to signal to the world that the necessary ingredients for a strengthened U.S. recovery are in place and to bolster the foundations of U.S. competitiveness and energy security.”
Deficit Crisis Redux: The outcome of the budget, the sequester, and debt limit negotiations is the single biggest failure of this Congress and administration, according to U.S. Chamber Executive Vice President for Government Affairs Bruce Josten. “The bias toward unconstrained deficit spending is our top economic issue,” Josten says. "The agreement [to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling], like the fiscal cliff deal, avoided destruction and nothing else.”
After the green frenzy, businesses rapidly jumped on the green bandwagon (or fuel efficient vehicle) to capture their share of the eco-wallet. We seem to be settling into a rational green phase in business, where companies and consumers alike are starting to make decisions based on facts and reality, rather than the desire to be “cool green.” The costs of being environmentally responsible have also come down, and more practical and affordable—options are available. Today, going green encompasses reducing waste, saving energy, and much more than garden variety recycling programs. Some local companies are finding opportunities for growing their businesses by targeting customers interested in riding this next wave of green.
Customers are More Educated
Despite the recession, consumers are buying environmentally-friendly products and two-thirds of them do their homework prior to settling on a product that makes sustainability claims. Sharon Rowe, CEO/founder of ECOBAGS.com of Ossining, New York, who has been involved in the eco-industry for 20 years says, “What might have been considered a green practice two years ago has also changed. Rather than just selecting a green bag, people have begun to look at how it’s made, where it’s made, and whether the product is made in a sustainable way, including manufacturing processes, materials, and labor issues.” To gain a competitive advantage, ECOBAGS markets the fact that their products are made from sustainable materials and are manufactured and produced under Fair Wage and Fair Labor standards.
Large entities, such as the government, universities, and the Fortune 500, have begun to pay attention to sustainability, and small businesses that fit the bill can benefit. According to Gary Survis, managing partner of Go Green Displays of Piscataway, NJ, “If small companies want to do business with these organizations, they’d better do more than talk about their plastics recycling program.” Energy audits, policies on travel, assessments of resources (across all aspects of the business) are all ways that small businesses can go that extra step in building a culture of sustainability.
Go Green Displays target eco-conscious customers by positioning themselves as an expert in everything sustainable. “Establish yourself as a thought leader across the green spectrum and you will be the first one to come to people’s minds when they think green,” says Survis. His company offers to do lunch-and-learns or presentations on green business for clients or prospects. In these programs, Survis talks about best practices and does not try to sell his marketing services. “I make sure that I don’t just know the space I operate in, but that I understand everything from waste reduction to energy use. I attend seminars and educate myself on the full package,” he says.
Provide Smarter Energy
Whereas eco-practices were viewed as an incremental expense several years ago, businesses have found that the basic principles of environmentalism—reduce, reuse, recycle—can save them money in the long run. Energy use has become a key area of focus for many businesses, with some government entities offering significant benefits for adoption of new practices. Geoscape Solar of Short Hills, New Jersey, performs energy audits on homes and businesses, and Jeffrey Chavkin, president and co-founder, reinforces that the businesses he deals with do not want to go green primarily for PR or community-relations benefits. They are seeking bottom-line savings. “They need solutions that are cost-effective and either pay back or do not adversely affect operations or cash flow.”
Geoscape was founded 14 months ago due to increased consumer demand for energy solutions. Chavkin left a career in commodities and his partner left a career in banking. Chavkin’s partner, Michael Boches, had worked for a solar power company 20 years ago, but because the energy solution was not popular, the company folded.
That was in the past; in the future Chavkin sees that wind power will make gains in the years ahead, as will the use of bio-fuels and electric/hybrid vehicles. For more ways your business can save on energy consumption, consult an online source like business.gov/expand/green-business/energy-efficiency/get-started/ that also details government incentives for changes.
Marketing for Green Businesses
Options for reducing paper waste are more plentiful and less expensive than they were several years ago. Print-on-demand technology has begun to deliver great quality, and e marketing and social media have made many ink-on-paper communications unnecessary. Rick Whelan, founder of Ditto! Design! urges companies who do use paper communications to “let the design solution be appropriate to the message and intended audience.” What seems like an obvious rule of good marketing can, in the long run, help save the environment, as well as unnecessary costs. While Whelan focuses mostly on graphic design these days, Ditto! Design! was Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified nearly five years ago. According to Whelan, helping clients move messages to electronic media, employing print-on-demand technologies, or asking customers if they would prefer print or online brochures are all ways to reduce expenses, as well as satiate clients trying to reduce their own paper consumption.
Consultants Take it a Step Further
Many small businesses feel they are starting to plateau on what they can do to improve their day-to-day activities and are looking beyond the obvious. The definition of sustainability extends beyond buying products labeled eco-friendly. Business consultants can look at how they can use their expertise to reduce waste. “Businesses need to take a step back, to see if their general organization can be shifted in such a way to consume fewer resources, thereby saving money,” says Yale Klat, chief sustainability officer of the Salsberg Group. “One client was able to downsize their facility, while increasing both distribution and sales, by creating separate shifts for their workforce and sharing workspace.” While companies are streamlining and downsizing, consultants can help them consider the side benefits of changing internal processes and legacy systems. Many of these changes, although not initially perceived as “sustainability” initiatives may result in a dramatic waste reduction.
Quality for More Green
Funding sources are also cropping up for entrepreneurial ventures that hold true promise for changing the environmental game. Many start-ups and small businesses have received significant financial backing.
Nancy A. Shenker is the CEO/founder of theONswitch, and is the co-author of "Don’t Hook Up With the Dude in the Next Cube: 200+ Career Secrets for New Grads." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
West Virginia's Marcellus Shale is an example of how the shale boom can resonate beyond the energy industry. A few weeks ago, a Brazilian company announced that it is developing plans to build an “ethane cracker” and three plastic resin plants. From natural gas liquids, a cracker produces ethylene and other chemicals that are used as feedstocks for resin plants to produce plastics.
As planning on the multi-billion-dollar investment continues, Steve Hendrick, president and CEO of MATRIC (Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center), writes in a Charleston Daily Mail op-ed, that government and the education and business communities must cooperate to ensure that there are enough workers with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills to construct and operate the facilities when they get the go-ahead:
Our public schools, community colleges and universities need to continue to collaborate with large manufacturers like Braskem, Dow and Bayer — and West Virginia innovation engines like MATRIC — to learn what jobs we anticipate we'll need over the next ten, twenty, and thirty years. And we all need to encourage children to pursue fulfilling STEM careers, as studies show that students begin to lose interest in STEM as early as elementary school, often due to a lack of hands-on, inquiry-based science instruction."
The payoff would be significant. According to the American Chemistry Council, a $3.2 billion investment in ethane cracking in West Virginia will result in $7 billion in chemical industry output and 12,000 jobs.
Developing STEM skills in the workforce will ensure that West Virginia takes full advantage of the shale energy abundance that lies beneath.
A federal appeals court ruled that the Energy Department can’t continue charging utilities and electricity ratepayers for a theoretical nuclear waste disposal site, reports Bloomberg:
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that the Energy Department must take steps to suspend collection of the nuclear-waste fee from utilities because the government has provided no alternative to a canceled project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, for which the funds are collected.
The three-judge appeals court panel said the Energy Department failed to come up with an adequate evaluation for the waste fee, which is paid into a fund that has grown to more than $29 billion since the first money was collected in 1983.
The agency’s assessment of disposal costs was “so large as to be absolutely useless to be used as an analytic technique,” Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman wrote in the seven-page decision. He said the department’s presentation reminded the court of a line from the musical “Chicago,” which says, “Give them the old razzle dazzle.”
The ruling directs the department to ask Congress to change the fee to zero until it complies with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which established Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear-waste repository, or until lawmakers enact an alternate plan to store spent fuel.
Nuclear Energy Institute General Counsel Ellen Ginsberg, applauded the ruling:
The court’s ruling reinforces the fundamental principle that the federal government’s obligation is to carry out the law, whether or not the responsible agency or even the president agrees with the underlying policy.
Since the law was passed in 1982, the Nuclear Waste Fund has grown to $28.2 billion, and brings in about $750 million in fees annually.
This is the latest legal setback for an administration that has been perpetually opposed to Yucca Mountain as a disposal site. In 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—then chaired by Gregory Jaczko, former aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)—simply stopped review of the site. A federal court scolded the agency in August for doing this, declaring it was “flouting the law,” and ordered the review to be restarted.
There’s been a national nuclear waste policy on the books for over three decades, and federal agencies can’t ignore it.
Through ingenuity and innovation, America is experiencing an energy renaissance that is transforming our economy, creating millions of jobs, and increasing our energy security. For instance, USA Today reported that in October, the U.S. produced more crude oil domestically than it imported for the first time in nearly 20 years.
This tremendous abundance of energy resources has also spawned a rebirth of U.S. manufacturing. Dozens of mothballed steel and petrochemical factories have reopened to take advantage of abundant and economical energy resources. In addition, according to BloombergBusinessweek, companies plan to invest $100 billion in new factories.
A recent report sponsored by the Institute for 21st Century Energy found that more than 2.1 million jobs are supported by this energy revolution, and this number is expected to grow to 3.3 million jobs by 2020. The report also found that more than $1.6 trillion dollars in government revenue will be generated by these activities through 2025. What’s more, through cheaper energy, fuel, and goods, this revolution has increased the disposable income of the average American family by $1,200, and this will increase to over $3,500 in 2025.
However, the federal government is taking steps that threaten these projected benefits. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed regulations that will largely duplicate the aggressive regulations already in place in energy-producing states. BLM’s proposed regulations are unnecessary, will increase the cost of energy production on federal lands, and risk decreasing U.S. energy production. Additionally the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the middle of a multi-year study on the environmental impacts of energy production. Its analysis must be transparent, require the highest level of peer-review, and provide the appropriate context for any findings.
This week, the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 2728, the “Protecting States' Rights to Promote American Energy Security Act.” The bill will ensure the government does not create unnecessary regulations that duplicate existing state regulation and make sure that EPA’s report is held to the highest degree of transparency and scientific integrity.
To protect America’s energy renaissance, House Members must vote for H.R. 2728.