Clinton administration officials fretted during the run-up to the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business. "There was a fear that the NFIB [National Federation of Independent Business] would take over, and that they would use it as a forum to embarrass the administration," says Mark Schultz, the conference's executive director.
At the same time, Schultz was fielding concerns from the NFIB. The organization that represents more than 600,000 small businesses was worried that the Clinton administration was trying to influence the nonpartisan, Congressionally authorized event.
Schultz negotiated past each side's neuroses. The conference proceeded, distilling the needs of small businesses. Its findings were widely supported. Congress and regulatory agencies have acted on 90 percent of the 1995 agenda, according to an August 2000 report by the SBA. Actions have included the passage of the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 and increased access to capital. Capitol Hill staffers note that the legislation usually was supported by large majorities among both Republicans and Democrats, often passing with no opposition.
Seven years later, Schultz's vignette neatly summarizes the current state of Washington's small-business lobby. The groups that support the cause of small business--including, among others, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Small Business United (NSBU)-generally face a receptive audience on Capitol Hill.
"One of the first things the Senate told me [during confirmation hearings] is that small business is not a partisan issue," says Hector Barreto, the SBA's current administrator. "There's not a Republican or Democratic solution to small-business problems."
And yet, in the midst of this love fest, there is a mini-war going on. To read some of the press releases and speeches of certain Washington small-business groups (cough, NFIB, cough), the Capitol is in the grips of a life-and-death struggle. You, the small-business owner, must act now to stop them (cough, Democrats, cough).
As in 1995, Democrats still remain wary of the NFIB, the single most powerful group claiming to speak for small businesses in DC. Even Republicans, who received 96 percent of the NFIB's political contributions in 2000, acknowledge it as the 800-pound gorilla that throws its weight around and dominates the small-business debate through its aggressiveness.
Even so, other groups are frequently much more effective at initiating change in Washington and in working both sides of the aisle. Understanding why that's the case helps explain who's speaking on your behalf in the corridors of power.
But first, you need to know something about Washington.