Have Your Say

Not Playing the Game

If you've signed up with any of these groups, you know how it's done. They send out newsletters, monthly magazines, e-mails and faxes. Most are content to report on the steady accumulation of successes. They work with Democrats and Republicans to push forward legislation-after all, if both sides are willing to help, why not stay in touch with both? But two groups don't play that game: the SBSC and the NFIB.

The SBSC is as refreshing as it is unique and is an ideological organization viewing everything from a free-market philosophy. Where most membership organizations reflect their members' needs, SBSC's members reflect its beliefs. "Instead of starting to find out where people want us to be, we start with principles, and then we attract people," says president Darrell McKigney.

Unlike other groups, SBSC does not worry about the pedestrian day-to-day work of pruning legislation to better meet the needs of small businesses. "If the bill is a forest, we'll comment on the forest, but they'll trim the trees," says McKigney. He sounds like a dotcom-era CEO who talks about a business model instead of worrying about how to make a profit.

Sound Off
Give us a piece of your mind. Share your opinions on the issues that affect your business by writing a letter to the editor.

That remove, however, has helped the SBSC play a significant role in killing the health-care legislation of the first Clinton administration. It recognized what it saw as bad legislation and screamed from the rooftop. It took a while for other groups to catch on and stop merely trying to mitigate its ill effects-primarily, crafting different ways to lessen the impact of mandating that employers provide insurance for their employees.

"The [SBSC] makes the NFIB look middle-of-the-road," says Frank S. Swain, who served as the SBA's chief counsel for advocacy in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. But such ideological purity comes with a price, including being written off by "the opposition"--i.e., Democrats. That's why the SBSC earns intellectual kudos but little real power. It is also hurt by the group's preference to comment on the issues of the day rather than establish an agenda.

The NFIB's power, by contrast, comes from its agenda-and how it is pursued. The organization surveys its members three to four times per year by providing them a ballot listing pros and cons of several questions. NFIB's Washington staff writes up the descriptions, choosing the questions to ask based on the rankings members give to 70 issues every three years. "We use that as a constant background on what they think are important issues," says Danner.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce conducts a similar annual membership review of its members, but the NFIB's frequency makes it one of the most up-to-date barometers of small-business opinion in Washington. Unlike the SBSC, it doesn't claim to start from ideological principles. It uses the data as a foundation for its views.

The group breaks down the results by congressional district for each member of Congress. It's hard to ignore the NFIB's position knowing that 300 or so of your constituents took time away from their busy day to fill out the questionnaire. No wonder the research wins praise from congressional staff and other small-business groups.

Note, however, who chooses the questions. The NFIB's Washington representatives (and those of the Chamber, for that matter) set the direction of the questionnaire-thus limiting the scope of the survey. In contrast, the NSBU establishes its agenda through individual issues brought forward by committees made up of approximately 300 activist small-business owners. It's not a perfect representation of NSBU's 65,000 members, but at least business owners are controlling the terms of debate.

Of course, both methods end up identifying the same issues. But when the NFIB frames the problem, it does so with a flourish that puts Democrats on the defensive.

"Instead of putting the needs of small business first, there might be some political impetus behind [NFIB's efforts]," says Wendy Belzer, a spokesperson for the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Small Business.

One former Clinton administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, also feels that NFIB stacks the deck. "They self-select their membership," he says. "The majority of their membership is conservative, but there's about 30 percent Democrats in the small-business community, 40 percent Republicans, and 30 percent that's absolutely independent."

The Democrats' edginess is heightened by NFIB press releases. In January, NFIB faxes heralded Danner's comments about speeches by two Democratic senators. In one, Danner decried majority leader Tom Daschle "unveiling this seven-point plan to cover his backside in Washington." In the other, he railed that "While I realize that Sen. Kennedy has a blind and undying devotion to higher taxes . . ." They're great zingers (revolution is fun, after all), but hardly intended to make Democrats want to work with the NFIB.

"Your goal is to advocate for the small-business owner, not a political party, despite the makeup of your members," says Kristie Darien, director of government affairs at the NASE. "Even if your members are 90 percent Republican, you should be advocating for small business."

A Call to Action
The 1980, 1986 and 1995 White House Conferences on Small Business drove the legislative action improving the small-business climate. Planning for the next conference will take at least 18 months, but first, Congress needs to authorize it.

It's time to write your senators and representatives. Ask them to support the authorization for a White House Conference on Small Business no later than 2005. Ten years is long enough for you to go without voicing your opinions.

The best way to write a note to your congressperson is to visit www.house.gov/writerep. The page will automatically look up the House of Representatives member who represents your district once you supply the ZIP code. The Senate also has a page with e-mail addresses for all 100 senators listed by state at www.senate.gov/contacting/index_by_state.cfm.

Remember, as a small business, you carry a lot of weight on Capitol Hill-but only when you're vocal.


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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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