Have Your Say

Uphill Struggle

Playing the role of Sisyphus-Greek mythology's king condemned to rolling a rock uphill-is the small-business lobby. It is composed of groups claiming to speak for small businesses. In addition to the NFIB, the Chamber and NSBU, there are the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE), the Small Business Survival Committee (SBSC) and a legion of women's and minority interest groups, such as the National Association of Women Business Owners and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. (Other important players in DC small-business discussions include the National Commission on Entrepreneurship and the Research Institute for Small and Emerging Business, which are technically educational groups. They publish research and white papers suggesting directions for small-business initiatives, but are barred by IRS regulations from actively lobbying Congress or the administration on behalf of their ideas.)

All these groups are different from trade associations such as the Independent Electrical Contractors or the Society of American Florists, which speak for the specific needs of individual industries. That's where Satagaj's SBLC, a large umbrella group that represents 80 such trade associations, comes in.

Trade associations often tend to focus on their members' specific problems. Satagaj regularly pursues 40 to 50 of these micro-issues in any given Congress. Working the regulatory agencies and asking Congress for technical amendments that tweak existing laws, the SBLC has quietly become the king of small-business evolutionists.

Most of the general small-business lobbying groups, however, pursue broader goals. Their memberships usually cross multiple industries, making consensus more difficult and dictating a big-picture agenda. Groups such as the NFIB and NSBU tend to focus on five to 10 items in each Congress, choosing policies as broad as their memberships.

It's one reason that, despite representing everything from the sole practitioner to the 500-employee manufacturer, the agendas of so many organizations overlap. Almost every group, for example, is trying to take credit for last year's repeals of the OSHA ergonomics standard and the estate tax.

The common program makes the small-business lobby a chummy group. They frequently form coalitions to fight against the positions of the environmentalist, labor, trial lawyer and even corporate lobbies. "When it comes to making life better for small business, we're all on the same team," says Dan Danner, NFIB's senior vice president for public policy.

But because these initiatives cover such a broad swath of business, they tend to be expensive, especially when focused on tax issues. Take, for instance, repeal of the estate tax. Repealing the estate tax reduces federal income. To mitigate the budgetary impact, negotiators agreed to implement the repeal over 10 years. In contrast, the SBLC's more finely honed items cost a pittance and can be included in last-minute negotiations for other bills with little hassle or notice.

As an entrepreneur, you might unveil a new product or service within weeks of thinking about it. However, the drawn-out timeline of the small-business lobby's Washington agenda is practically incomprehensible. This is a problem. How can they keep you interested in these issues year after year?

A Voice for the Masses
Tom Sullivan just took over what is known in Washington as the most important small-business policy position: the SBA's chief counsel for advocacy. It took a year for the Bush administration to nominate and the Senate to approve him, but he's been in the hot seat since January 25.

Whenever an executive branch department considers a regulation, Sullivan makes sure it doesn't unduly affect your business. The counsel for advocacy cajoles, pleads or-when necessary-beats a head with a stick. Fortunately, Sullivan is well-equipped; he recently helped establish the NFIB's legal foundation. Previously, he served at the EPA and the Justice Department. "If there was an ideal training ground for the Office of Advocacy, it was the NFIB," says Frank Swain, who held the post in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. "Advocacy challenges federal agencies on regulatory matters that are burdensome for small businesses."

Small-business players note that Sullivan's NFIB work entailed building coalitions with other small-business groups. "He's worked with the trade association community very well," says Jere Glover, advocacy counsel during the Clinton years. That fits SBA administrator Hector Barreto's outreach program with these organizations nicely.

As Sullivan enters the Bush administration, his major priority is establishing a presence for advocacy. "We don't have the luxury of waiting for the Commerce Secretary to call us," Sullivan says. Longer term, he wants to ensure bureaucrats understand the needs of small businesses before crafting regulations.

In general, several small-business lobbyists and his predecessors think Sullivan is up to the task. "I'm excited," says Glover. "He'll do a great job."


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This article was originally published in the June 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Have Your Say.

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