The White House Conference Follies
Seldom do columns provoke as much hue and cry as the one we ran on last summer's White House Conference on Small Business ("A Missed Opportunity," Policy, November, [Article link]). Having attended the conference with editor at large Jeffrey L. Seglin, I thought he did a splendid job of capturing the flavor of the proceedings, the comportment of the delegates, and the waste of an important chance to influence public policy. But that wasn't how some readers saw it. Here's a sampling of the responses:* * *
I take offense at Seglin's put-down of the delegates to the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business. It is unfair to use the unprofessional actions of a few to discredit the work of 2,000 others. There was a broad spectrum of issues to consider. Compromises were made, and some self-serving proposals reached the top. But if you study the top 60 issues, you'll find many that are appropriate for further action by Congress and the president.
Delegate from South Carolina
The Barkley/Fraser Co.
Charleston, S.C.* * *
Seglin identifies the symptoms but fails to make the diagnosis on the schizophrenic White House Conference. There were essentially two agendas -- one pursued by a government-dependency constituency aided by a sympathetic administration sponsor, and another followed by risk-taking, profit-making, market-oriented private businesses. Yes, the conference was a vehicle for small business, but -- like all vehicles -- it was subject to being hijacked. Entrepreneurs are best advised to build and operate their own vehicles.
A.O. Griffiths, D.V.M.
Crossroads Veterinary Clinic and Hospital
Urbana, Ill.* * *
The problems Seglin writes about were a reflection of the delegate-selection process. In its zeal to have minority representation, the Clinton administration and its allies skillfully controlled blocks of votes as delegates were selected. As a result, most state delegations included a disproportionate number of government-funded community-action programs and one-person, at-home businesses dependent on preferential treatment and government handouts to survive. Those delegates were able to push some of their proposals to the top.
Edward F. Treick
Delegate from Wisconsin
S-F Analytical Laboratories
Milwaukee* * *
The results of the next White House Conference will be even less significant than those of the 1995 conference unless small-business owners, rather than Small Business Administration bureaucrats, determine the criteria for participating. There were no meaningful criteria for being a voting delegate to the 1995 conference. In fact, delegates did not even have to own a business. Employees of companies and family members of employees were eligible. So were people from companies with no employees at all. Participation should be restricted to owners of companies with at least five employees, engaged in the business of supplying a product or a commercial service.
Stephen S. Stack
Chicago* * *
According to Seglin, the delegates wanted to balance the federal budget by cutting only the programs that do not directly benefit them. That is presumably why they endorsed Recommendation #286, which called for support of various programs and acknowledgment of the value of the Small Business Administration. What Seglin neglects to mention is that SBA administrator Phil Lader has already cut the agency's budget by 32%, a move we also support. No doubt Seglin was trying to bolster his point that delegates were motivated by "narrow self-interest." I wrote Recommendation #286. I am curious to know what my narrow self-interest is. I do not derive any direct benefit from the SBA, and I was not paid to write thousands of letters and messages in support of my recommendation -- unlike Seglin, I might add, who I assume was paid to write his article.
Mark S. Deion
Delegate from Rhode Island
Deion Associates & Strategies
Warwick, R.I.* * *
My company does tax planning and monthly financial statements for small businesses. We have 22,000 clients and 300 accounting offices across the United States. There is a reason you found so much whining and such a missed opportunity at the White House Conference. A lot of the delegates were not typical small-business owners. In my opinion, there was a disproportionate number of people with special interests, many of them engaged in sucking tax dollars out of set-asides, quotas, and other such programs -- the kind of people my clients are sick of. Most small-business owners were probably too busy to participate in the conference. That's our loss.
State Senator (and Delegate) from Illinois
Comprehensive Accounting Services
Geneva, Ill.* * *
Reading these letters, I find my own frustrations with the White House Conference bubbling up all over again. The writers are missing the point. Maybe it's true, as several of them suggest, that there were serious flaws in the delegate-selection process. I myself thought the conference brought together a fairly representative cross section of the small-business universe, but whether I'm right or wrong doesn't really matter. By getting themselves selected, the people in that room took on the responsibility of speaking on behalf of small-business owners everywhere. The problem was what they chose to speak about -- namely, how can government best serve the interests of small businesses?
Let's face it. You don't need a White House Conference to illuminate that question. Any high school civics student can tell you that special tax breaks, cheap capital, government set-asides, and other forms of relief will benefit whatever group receives them. If policymakers can't figure that out for themselves, there are thousands of trade associations and countless small-business-advocacy groups that are only too happy to explain it.
The White House Conference on Small Business presented an opportunity to illuminate an altogether different question: how can government best serve the national interest by creating an environment conducive to the starting and growing of businesses? Unfortunately, that question was lost in the din of horse trading among the various small-business special-interest groups.
Not that the conference should have steered clear of discussing government programs. Rather, those programs should have been considered in a different light. All set-asides, for example, are not created equal. At their worst, they are simply another form of pork. Then there is the SBIR program, which sets aside a portion of federal research money for small businesses and which has proved to be consistently efficient, productive, and beneficial to the economy as a whole. Or consider tax breaks, which often represent a thinly disguised form of special-interest subsidy. At their best they encourage behavior that creates jobs, wealth, and economic opportunity for millions of Americans.
The men and women who own and run small businesses currently enjoy a special status in the eyes of the public. In one recent national survey, they were named as the most trustworthy group of leaders in the United States. There is a reason for that. During a time of rampant entitlement, the public perceives -- accurately, I believe -- that small-business people get their wealth the old-fashioned way: they earn it. The delegates who attended the White House Conference on Small Business had an opportunity to take that message of economic self-sufficiency to Washington, to show a kind of leadership that has been woefully absent from policy discussions.
Too bad they blew it.