Chamber of Commerce Chief Fights Extra Business Costs

JAMES K. BAKER - not the Secretary of State - could be called the principal spokesman for the American business community. He's this year's chairman of the United States Chamber of Commerce, which bills itself as the world's largest federation of business companies and associations. And, as might be anticipated, he's pro-business. In an interview here, Mr. Baker, who is also chief executive officer of Arvin Industries Inc., an auto parts maker in Columbus, Ohio, outlined Chamber goals for enhancing and retaining a good business climate. Seeks veto of civil rights bill

He, for example, opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1992, which has been passed by both the Senate and the House. It is awaiting consideration by a conference committee when Congress returns to Washington in September.

``This is antibusiness legislation,'' Baker says. The Chamber charges that the bill will force businessmen to adopt quota systems for hiring minorities and women or face expensive and burdensome lawsuits.

The sponsors of the bill, Senator Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D) of California, made some language changes in an attempt to deal with such charges.

But Fred Krebs, a Chamber official, calls them ``feel-good amendments.... They are there for political cover.''

At present, if an employer is found guilty of discrimination, a court can impose ``make-whole remedies.'' The employer must provide financial compensation and/or job reinstatement. The new law will provide for jury trails and punitive as well as compensatory damages. Mr. Krebs calls these ``make-rich remedies.'' He predicts the legislation will be a ``lawyers' relief bill'' that will introduce into employer-employee relations something like the tort system for product liability and malpractice lawsuits in the medical field.

The Chamber is sending mail to many of its 180,000 member businesses and organizations in the next few weeks to drum up support for a presidential veto. Opposes large postal rate increase

Another Chamber goal is to trim a planned postal rate increase to ``something more acceptable,'' Baker says. ``The Chamber is going to fight it tooth and toenail.''

Last March, the US Postal Service requested an increase in the cost of a first class stamp to 30 cents from its present 25 cents. This nearly 20 percent increase would also apply to most other classes of postage.

He maintains that the Postal Service has not done enough to control costs, including its biggest cost, manpower. He notes that the total compensation cost for each postal worker averages $40,000 per year, twice the national average for private-sector workers. That wage level, he says, ``is way beyond the skills involved.''

Other items on the chairman's agenda:

Block any increase in federal taxes, lower the tax on capital gains, cap social security tax rates at present levels, and boost the research and development tax credit.

The government, Baker says, should be able to operate within existing tax rates. These provide more revenues each year. Further, Washington could benefit from a ``peace dividend.''

The Chamber chairman would like to see Congress apply more discipline in its spending. He wants the president to be given a line-item veto. He urges ``entitlement reform'' to trim the cost-of-living increases in social security payments to retirees.

Baker denies that these changes would favor the rich over the poor. He says they would encourage business to create jobs: ``It is business that drives the economic engine in this country.''

Prevent state or federal governments from ``saddling'' new social welfare measures on business. Such measure could require businesses to pay for health insurance for those individuals not now covered, permit parental leave, and provide child care facilities.

Baker says politicians are trying to get votes without having to pay for it with extra taxes. Such new costs would ``damage the competitiveness'' of US business in the international market. ``We want to preserve free enterprise without hanging a lot of unnecessary costs on business.''

Improve public education, kindergarten through grade 12.

``This,'' says Baker, ``is No. 1 on the agenda in every state and local chamber in this country.'' Business in the US needs a properly educated work force to compete globally, he notes.

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