The Entrepreneurial Free Agent and Dejobbed Small Business R&D Lab
More than 600 small business owners from across the United States descended on Washington, D.C., June 7th-10th to help craft a federal legislative agenda at the 2000 Congressional Small Business Summit hosted by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). Issues-based focus groups and delegation-wide polling sessions were held to draft a Small Business Referendum to serve as a road map for public officials and political candidates as they make policy decisions over the next two years.
"Small business is going to send a strong message to Washington from this Summit," said NFIB President Jack Faris, "The Small Business Referendum is a blueprint that policy makers can follow to help small businesses in their communities survive and thrive. Policy makers and candidates who choose to ignore this blueprint will have to answer to their local small business owners on Election Day."
In addition to drafting their issues-based referendum, Summit delegates heard from a list of keynote speakers which reads like the Who's Who For Small Business in Washington and around the U.S. including U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, General Colin Powell (ret.), IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Kit Bond, House Small Business Committee Chairman Jim Talent, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating and Digital Restaurant Solutions CEO Herman 'The Herminator' Cain.
And as this Summit was held during a Federal election year, the Summit included a Presidential straw poll to give the candidates a heads-up on who this influential group of small business leaders feels is speaking to their issues.
Two days of debate and polling found that affordable health insurance for small business owners and their employees and repeal of the Federal Death Tax were the top priorities of the Summit delegation. Both these issues were in hot debate on Capitol Hill during the Summit. Delegates used this fortuitous timing to knock on doors and ring the phones of their representatives to help defeat the Kennedy-backed health care reform proposal and, most significantly,to pass a veto-proof repeal of the Federal Death Tax.
By providing that employees could sue their employers for punitive damages in the event that the employer-provided health insurance was inadequate or ineffective in obtaining health care services, the Kennedy-backed bill would have had the unintended impact of virtually eliminating the ability of small businesses to provide health insurance as a fringe benefit. The announcement on the floor of the Summit that this bill was killed on Capitol Hill was greeted with a cheering standing ovation and sighs of relief.
An even larger ovation greeted the announcement of veto-proof passage of HR 8, the Death-Tax Elimination Act. Death taxes, which could mount to nearly 55% of the value of small businesses inherited by family members, have become a leading cause in the loss of family-owned and operated small businesses which rarely have the cash reserves of large businesses. The passage of HR 8 provides for a 10-year phasing out of the Death Tax.
In addition to affordable health insurance and repeal of the death tax, Summit delegates identified the most critical concerns of small business which they'll present to policymakers and candidates in the upcoming Federal and state elections:
Small Business Technology Strikes A Chord
Even good old political issue polling is not immune to technical innovation. This year's Summit was the first to use a fully electronic, computer-based polling system. Each delegate was supplied a radio-frequency remote control device to register his or her vote on each proposal for the referendum document.
"The instant polling feature was exciting and fun," said Mary Wells, a delegate from North Carolina and a candidate for the North Carolina House of Representatives, "Past Summits were a lot more work and sometimes tiresome. All the votes were made and tallied by hand. You had to wait until the next day to hear results of delegate voting. This was instant gratification."
Summit Speakers Urge Small Businesses To Join Together And Use Their Clout
Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond, Chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, encouraged delegates to join together to end the current tax code and to stop OSHA's over-bearing ergonomic rule.
Noting that the ergonomic standard being touted by OSHA is not based on scientific evidence, and is so vague that businesses won't be able to tell if they are complying with it or not, Bond said, "OSHA keeps coming forward with new regulations, now that's a repetitive motion injury."
Bond reminded delegates that most lawmakers have little understanding of small business. They don't realize the problems that over regulation and over taxation cause.They base their votes on what they hear.
"When small businesses join together they can get heard by Congress." he said. "That's why this Small Business Referendum for the Future that you're going to write is so important."
Charles Rossotti,Commissioner of the IRS made points with delegates by announcing the creation of a Small Business and Self-Employed division, aimed at making tax filing easier and redesigning tax forms.
"The most important thing we can do is to change the code, make it simpler, and ensure it does not restrict small business," said Rossotti.
At the gala dinner honoring Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Bill Archer (see related article), Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert said, "We must allow small business to join together and have the same advantages as big business."
Echoed by Chairman of the House Small Business Committee, Jim Talent, delegates stood and cheered as he further advised, "Keep doing what you do to make lawmakers listen. You're going to win if you keep on fighting. And, don't be afraid to show a little fang."
Calling to task his fellow policymakers, Talent claimed, "It's time to treat small businesses as friends and not as the enemy. We need an attitude change," in the way policymakers side with OSHA's unfair rules, in their defense of death taxes and in their opposition to association health plans.
Herman Cain, the dynamic CEO of Digital Restaurant Solutions pointed to three "mega factors" that will interact to shape our future: technology, government and people. Noting the escalating pace of technological change he claimed, "It's not necessary to be on the cutting edge of technology, but you sure better be on the blade somewhere."
Pointing to the current tax code as "the new slavery," Social Security as a failure, and government as excessive, Cain said, "We should have a Declaration of Common Sense." We need to obtain the right results by working on the right problems and insist that leaders have the courage to lead with conviction and common sense.
He urged delegates to "Call your representative. Call your senator...And keep on calling 'til they get it right. They will listen, but you'll have to speak real loud for a long time."
Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, echoed the message. He reminded delegates that the money government spends is not government's money, it's hard-earned money from business and workers. Business has the right to expect accountability for how that money is spent.
Keating lamented that business owners and policymakers alike are calling for an increase in visas for educated foreign workers as the "solution" to our current skilled worker shortage. "Why are our schools not providing our own graduates to fill those jobs?"
Calling for an end to "social promotion," he urged business owners to demand that schools provide graduates who are skilled in basic education -- able to read, write, do math, use a computer, take direction and give direction to others. We must go into the schools at every level and demand to know "what are you doing to prepare for America's future?"
The final speaker, General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret), sent delegates home with an important agenda, "We must build our kids for the 21st Century." We cannot afford to write off anyone. Our children are America's promise. Get involved.
(Background information on each of the speakers is available on the NFIB website.)
Straw Poll Favors George Bush For President
With an overwhelming 96.7% of Summit delegates choosing George W. Bush in a straw poll for president, Al Gore's 3.3% showed he was clearly not viewed as a friend of small business. If the delegates even partially represent the 600,000 members of the NFIB, Al Gore will need to pay small business issues much greater attention if he hopes to win their votes.
The 600 plus delegates are clearly not apolitical. About 11% will attend the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, 8.2 % will attend the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and 17.2 percent are currently running for office.
With the Internet making for widespread communication, over 90% of the delegates use e-mail for business communications while 65.6 % use the Internet for business sales and/or marketing.
Small Business Impact Projected For 2000 Elections
NFIB President Faris predicted small business involvement in the 2000 elections would be "tremendous," noting that a full 47 percent of the electorate in 1996 came from a small business household. They not only vote in high numbers, but they also work to get pro-small business candidates elected, he said. Research shows that nearly one in three small business owners who voted in 1998 reported they volunteered for a political candidate. They also "put their money where their mouths are," Faris said. More than one-third of small business owners who voted in 1998 reported they had contributed to political candidates.
NFIB was created in 1943 to give small and independent business owners a voice in governmental decision-making. True to its charter today the NFIB is the nation's largest small business advocacy group, and the second most influential lobby group in Washington DC (Fortune Power 25 Survey, 12/04/99). NFIB's Congressional Small Business Summit is the bi-annual opportunity for NFIB delegates from all 50 states to gather in Washington to help draft the Small Business Referendum that NFIB presents to members of Congress and candidates for elected office.
Additional Summit coverage and reflections by the article author/delegates are available on the Sohodojo website.
This article by Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky, Founding Hosts of Sohodojo and North Carolina delegates to the 2000 Congressional Small Business Summit.