Small Business Lobbyist Is No Longer Mr. Nice Guy

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Small Business Lobbyist Is No Longer Mr. Nice Guy

It's as bad as learning that All-American Pete Rose is suspended for gambling. In some quarters of Congress, small business--one of the apple-pie symbols that politicians have long loved to associate themselves with--is now being called the Fagin of the business community.

"We've always been like the Boy Scouts. We're a group every politician had nothing but good things to say about," notes veteran small-business lobbyist Kenton Pattie of the International Communications Industries Association. "But now, we're increasingly being portrayed as insensitive people who are only concerned about profits and who don't care anything about our employees. For the first time in my 17 years as a lobbyist, I am being forced to defend why a small-business owner should be free to manage his or her company as he or she thinks best in order to make a living."

This shifting image from everyone's Jack Armstrong to some people's Fagin reflects the increasing clash between the independent "get the government off our backs" character of the small-business sector and the changing nature of the social and legislative agenda at the federal level.

"It's the backers of mandated benefits who are calling small business nothing more than a bunch of greedy little shopkeepers. They think all companies should be forced by Congress to provide health insurance and parental leave for their workers, even if they can't afford it," argues Mike Rouse, Senate lobbyist for the 600,000-member National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). "They're attempting to move their agenda by discrediting our humanity. This is happening because it's been small business, not big business, that has stopped the mandated benefit proposals--especially health insurance--cold in their tracks, thus far."

In a way, the criticism being leveled at small business is a compliment: It shows that this group finally holds a measure of what every Washington lobby craves: CLOUT. "When we rattle someone's cage these days, they pay attention," notes Allen Neece of Neece/Cator Associates, a Washington-based lobbying firm specializing in small-business issues.

COMING OF AGE

There may be real flex in small business's political muscle these days, but it wasn't always that way. "For years, nearly every politician wanted to be known as a friend of small business. However, it was very hard to convert warm feelings into hard legislation," recalls Kenton Pattie. "Until recently, when small business lobbied Capitol Hill on an issue, Congress would often simply pat us on the head and say to come back later when things weren't as busy."

This situation began to change over the last decade as corporate America went through the turmoil of downsizing, reorganizing and generally reinventing itself in order to stay competitive. As the economy restructured itself, entrepreneurism suddenly became sexy. Owning your own business seemingly went from being "a nice thing to do" to a statement of one's personal and economic philosophy--not to mention a necessity for many out-of-work blue-collar workers and former executives. Individuals like Nolan Bushell of Atari, Steve Jobs of Apple and author/consultant Tom Peters became media stars by living and advocating the entrepreneurial life.

With studies showing it was small business, not big companies, that created most of the new jobs during this period, Congress jumped on the entrepreneurial bandwagon and directed that a national White House Conference on Small Business be held in 1980. A watershed gathering, this conference brought together several thousand small-business owners and association lobbyists to develop a consensus legislative agenda. "The White House conference generated a tremendous amount of adrenaline. We were going to create the Age of the Entrepreneur," recalls Chas Chadwell, a former Small Business Administration official and now president of Bethesda, Md. …