Partisan or not, the NFIB has more members than all the other dedicated small-business groups combined. It is about 10 times the size of NSBU (which Democrats cite as a bipartisan lobbyist for small business). The Chamber is much larger, with 3 million members, but it's not solely dedicated to small businesses; it represents both corporate behemoths and small businesses.
The NFIB's gaudy numbers are its main source of power. But keeping all those members fired up-and renewing their memberships-requires stoking the flames with incendiary press releases and action bulletins. "There's a certain kind of Main Street small-business owner who's only going to respond if they think they're the outsider," says Swain.
Fear, uncertainty and doubt sells. To generate fear in others, you need something to be afraid of--hence the Democrats' turn as the Devil.
People in Washington often tend to do silly things. That's why the grown-ups need to remind the children to play nice every so often. With government officials, elections do the job. For the small-business lobby, however, it's the White House Conference on Small Business.
Despite the name, the White House itself has very little to do with the sporadic event besides hosting it. Congress is responsible for authorizing and funding the conference. Each member of Congress selects a delegate among his or her constituents, a process which ensures that Republicans and Democrats keep each other in check, and secures representation by a broad, nonpartisan cross-section of the American small-business community.
No wonder, then, that in its three incarnations-1980, 1986 and 1995-the White House Conference has been seen as accurately portraying small businesses' needs. In a series of meetings, 20,000 small-business owners hashed out a list of priorities that was submitted to the president. The 1980 conference established small businesses' power and led to the creation of the Regulatory Flexibility Act. In 1986, the event saved the SBA from certain extinction during the Reagan administration. And the 1995 version led to the full deductibility of health insurance for the self-employed in 2003.
"Most of the seminal legislation involving small business since 1980 is a direct outgrowth of the White House Conferences," says Schultz, executive director of the 1995 conclave.
That's why Sens. Kit Bond (R-MO) and John Kerry (D-MA)-the ranking member and the chairman of the Senate's Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, respectively-want to make the White House Conference a regular event. Kerry wants it held every four years; House Small Business Committee chairman Donald Manzullo (R-IL), however, would prefer a 10-year cycle.
Whether or not the conference institutionalized, Eskeland says the next conference won't take place until 2005 at the earliest-10 years after the previous one. There's no telling what the conference might recommend. But if past conferences are any indication, a bipartisan Congress will quickly follow up on the agenda. And maybe, just maybe, the various groups in Washington will stop squabbling long enough to help see it through.
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Business writer Chris Sandlund is Entrepreneur's "Management Buzz" columnist. He works out of Cold Spring, New York.
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