By ROGER CHENG And JON KAMP
WASHINGTON—Efforts to spur job creation need to center on getting more credit—and fast—to small and midsize businesses and improving the country’s education system, according to a group of business leaders at the annual Wall Street Journal CEO Council.
“Look through the job creation lens for every policy,” American Express Co. Chief Executive Kenneth Chenault said. “All of the policies should be related to job creation.”
The pointed suggestions—from a group of chief executives representing companies with a total market cap of $1.9 trillion—reflected the fragile condition of the American economy as well as uncertainty over the broad slate of policies coming out of Washington, D.C., site of the meeting.
The group also called for broad tax reform that encourages savings and investment, while discouraging consumption and accumulating debt.
The CEOs argued that the main impediment to a faster economic recovery was the high level of unemployment. They called for ensuring credit was available to jump-start hiring, with an emphasis on smaller businesses.
At the conference, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) urged the chief executives to think of ways to help small businesses, which he called “the engine of the economy.”
With an eye toward future generations of workers, the CEOs decided that improving the quality of education—making it a priority for both lawmakers and businesses—was the second most important point.
Cisco Systems Inc. Chief Executive John Chambers said that of all the issues, education is the most important long-term concern for the country. AT&T Inc. Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, meanwhile, said the talent pool coming out high schools is getting diluted.
“Parents need to recognize that their children are falling behind,” he said.
Education should be an issue that brings together Democrats and Republicans at a time when they can agree on little else, Mr. Chambers said.
Some proposals set forth by the CEOs, however, underscore the gap between executives and lawmakers on how to solve some of the nation’s largest problems.
The CEOs, for instance, called for diversifying U.S. energy supplies, with more access to coal and offshore oil and natural gas production, while vastly increasing nuclear power generation and embracing all sources of renewable energy.
“We need it all. We have a lot of demand out there. To keep [energy] secure and affordable, we need to develop it all,” said Lynn Elsenhans, chief executive of Sunoco Inc.
Increased domestic energy production, however, has faced pushback from the federal government as the Democrat-controlled Congress resists more offshore oil and natural gas drilling, while coal mines in the Eastern U.S. face greater environmental scrutiny.
CEOs also highlighted reforming medical malpractice rules, which critics have long said inflate health-care costs by pushing doctors to play defense and over-treat patients.
While President Barack Obama has touched on the idea of reforming such rules, the executives’ plan indicates they want something more aggressive because they seek a limit to awards. The president has said from the outset that capping plaintiffs’ damages “is not a strategy that he would embrace” because it punishes injured patients, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said at the conference.
The malpractice reform plan also includes a cap on legal fees and the creation of “health courts.”
—Mark Peters and Paul Ziobro contributed to this report.
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