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Is Washington Forgetting About Entrepreneurs?

Is anyone in Washington paying attention to entrepreneurs?

As the 2006 congressional elections approach, they are shaping up to be the most hotly contested in years, potentially swinging control of both the House and Senate. Given so many tight races, leaders of both parties are looking for votes everywhere. Democrats are parading to Montana to see how that state's gun-toting, reportedly "Scotch-swilling" governor has won over hunters. Republicans are romancing even small blocks of voters, like Orthodox Jews.

But both sides seem to be ignoring one of the biggest potential voting blocks of all: entrepreneurs. On the Republicans' Senate and congressional campaign committee sites, the GOP offers endless commentary on items like a Democrats' alleged parties with Playboy Playmates-but no compre-hensive agenda for how to help small businesses. In Congress, Republicans have made permanent repeal of the estate tax one of their top priorities of the campaign season, even though a permanent repeal could cost over $300 billion in taxes and would benefit only a fraction of small companies.

At the same time, the GOP leadership has done little to address looming crises like the fact that, more than a year after Hurricane Katrina, many entrepreneurs in the Gulf region need grants rather than loans to survive, or that the SBA remains chronically underfunded. The level of real congres-sional activity is so low that perhaps no one should have been surprised when one of the GOP's leaders, George Allen, simply admitted to reporters in March that he found the Senate boring.

The Democrats seem no more responsive to entrepreneurs. Their recently unveiled, splashy "Innovation Agenda," part of a broader platform to show a 2006 vision for boosting the economy and securing the country, announced that the party would "provide small business with the tools to encourage entrepreneurial innovation." Back it up? Nah. In Congress, the Democrats' leadership has spent recent months blocking legislation promoting association health plans. The legislation, which polls show is popular with entrepreneurs, would allow small companies to group together for better rates on health care, probably the top issue hindering entrepreneurs' expansion-and thus their ability to innovate.

Both parties' willingness to ignore small-business issues testifies to how, in an era when even the government of Libya has developed a coherent agenda, hired lobbyists, and influenced Washington, small-business advocates still cannot present any united face. Indeed, when I speak to congressional staff members, few can identify any small-business organizations working on Capitol Hill, so entrepreneurs have no voice when the nitty-gritty of congressional bills are decided. Indeed, entrepreneurs have simply failed to learn a vital Washington lesson: Interest groups must either unite and spend their cash almost exclusively on one political party, or raise so much money that they can keep members of both parties on the golf trips and in the plush hotel suites they prefer.

Yet this is a vital time for small businesses. Without the right incentives, entrepreneurs along the Gulf Coast might never return. If businesses' health-care costs continue to spiral upwards, a majority of small companies may simply stop providing their workers with health care, as has already occurred in California. If the SBA does not right itself-its last chief resigned after members of his own party called for the SBA to be abolished-entrepreneurs could lose one their most important foundations of support and loans. Before November comes and goes, the small business community must unite on Capitol Hill-or face a lot more boredom.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a writer in Washington, DC

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This article was originally published in the October 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Forget Me Not.

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