Unlike most special-interest groups that saw their agendas die when President Clinton vetoed last year's huge budget-plus bill, small business organizations are bobbing and weaving their way to a banner year.
Ironically, their biggest coup could come with the minimum wage bill. Although an increase in the wage itself is anathema to small businesses, House Republicans are working to sweeten the proposal with an array of business tax breaks worth more than $5 billion over seven years."When the majority changed hands, overnight we started playing offense instead of defense," said Mark Isakowitz, chief House lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the best known of the lobbying groups. "Last Congress, if you got a hearing on a bill you cared about, you would feel you'd done something. This year we're seeing legislation signed."
Small business's "win" column for the 104th Congress includes:
- A boost to 30 percent, from 25 percent, in the tax deduction for health insurance premiums paid by the self-employed. The write-off could go as high as 80 percent by year's end if a pending health insurance bill is enacted.
- A requirement that small businesses be consulted about any new federal regulations that would affect them.
- Preservation of the ombudsman office in the Small Business Administration, which initially was targeted for elimination by Republicans.
- An increase in the Social Security earnings limit, which will allow seniors to earn more money before facing a reduction in their benefit checks. Senior citizens often work part time for small businesses.
Two years ago, small-business groups viewed Congress as a hazard and spent their time and their dollars fighting legislation.
"It's not just what the (GOP) majority has done for us, it's as much what they haven't done," said Elaine Graham, chief lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association.
Despite its successes, no one in the small business community believes the battles are over. The minimum-wage increase and several provisions in immigration legislation requiring employers to use a verification process to ensure that they avoid hiring illegal aliens are seen as serious burdens.
But at least now the business groups feel they are listened to by the people writing the legislation, said Graham.
"We had some huge changes in the immigration legislation because the people who wrote the draft didn't know the implications and they worked with us to change it," she said.
Small business lobbyists say the Republican majority in Congress is more attuned to their concerns than the old Democratic majority.
"The newer members of the new majority are much more pro-Main Street business than some of the older members, and the reason for it is that is that the small business owner is willing to step out and support conservatives running for office, while big business plays it pretty close to the vest," said John Motley, chief lobbyist for the National Federation of Retailers.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., agrees with Motley but says that just as the majority has become more sympathetic to small business, so has the minority. "I think you're seeing people elected, Republicans and Democrats, who are more sympathetic to Main Street than to big business," he said.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)