Jim Burg knew I was a journalist, and he had something he wanted me to hear. He reached across the table for my wrist. "When you have your own business, it's 24/7, 365," Burg, an accountant from Cincinnati, said. "You'll never work so hard in your life as you do in a small business, and I guess I hate the impression that all these business people do is sit in their condo in Florida and ride around on their yacht. That's not what small businesspeople do. It takes everything they have to run that business, and they're lucky they can get a vacation most of the time."
This was last Tuesday morning, at the National Federation of Independent Business's 2008 National Small Business Summit, as we waited for John McCain to arrive. (Yes, I realize that was a week ago -- time got away from me.) I was caught off guard. I didn't think I had said anything like that, or that my demeanor might have betrayed such sentiments. (On the other hand, an NFIB staffer sitting at my table recognized me as the author of a Q&A with the organization's senior health care adviser that had run a few weeks earlier, and basically told me I was a fifth column infiltrating the group's ranks.) In fact, Burg's aggravation was general. "That misconception bothers me to no end," he said. "A lot of that's perpetrated by the media -- I'm sorry, but I hate to see that all the time."
As an accountant, Burg represents small businesses and entrepreneurs in IRS proceedings, and by his own account he's passionate in his support for people like his clients. "When I do business with somebody, I want to do business with a small business," he said. "If I need something, I try to find a small business that can supply it, because I know what they're going through, and I'd much rather support them than the major corporations."
I asked him why he's a member of the NFIB. "Because of what they stand for. They represent the economic engine of this country. Government would be far better served by getting out of the way than trying to impose all the rules on us. We'd like to impose a few rules on the government, especially fiscal responsibility" -- politicians "are spending money they don't have and tying up future generations with all their stupidity." Then he caught himself. "Whoops," he said. "That's probably too strong."
As it happened, Burg and most of the other attendees planned to spend the afternoon over on Capitol Hill, talking to those politicians in meetings arranged by the NFIB. On the agenda would be health care (supporting the SHOP bill), making permanent the Bush tax cuts and expensing tax rules for small businesses, and opposing a card-check unionization bill in the House. In preparation, a few minutes earlier, eBay Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Government Relations, Tad Cohen offered his Top Ten Lobbying Rules:
1. Tell the truth. (Jim Burg, out of the side of his mouth: "A rarity on the hill.")
2. Tell your story -- not just your point of view.
3. Make sure you ask for something.
4. Staffers matter. ("The staff are the ones that do in almost all instances the hard work. Don't be upset if you don't meet the member of Congress; they rely on the staffers who are there.")
5. Admit when you don't something know -- don't make stuff up.
6. One meeting is never enough.
7. Make sure you let them speak and don't interrupt them. ("This is the hardest one for me to follow, but it matters a lot. They want to say things back to you.)
8. Be flexible. (Meetings get moved and rescheduled -- "that's part of the world of Capitol Hill.")
9. Save whatever paper you have until the very end. (Otherwise, they'll read it while you're talking to them.)
10. Be thankful you don't do this every day.
Burg liked his Congressman, Steve Chabot, though not because the Cincinnati Republican is the ranking minority member of the House Small Business Committee. (Burg didn't know this or didn't care, and not surprisingly: he'd probably see their work as meddling. Historically the NFIB has been indifferent to government initiatives like the SBA.) "What I like about Steve is that he's a fiscal conservative. He's been here for 14 years and he's still a fiscal conservative. And he got lambasted when he voted against the child insurance bill because of all the pork that was in that. But he did the right thing -- it was a fiscally irresponsible bill." Burg predicted his meeting with Chabot would be short and sweet.
However, when he mentioned his senator, Republican George Voinovich, Burg visibly cringed. I asked if he thought Voinovich was too liberal. "It's not that he's not conservative enough -- he's all over the board. He's a Republican, but he's a RINO" --a Republican In Name Only. ("They guy before who got beat by Sherrod Brown [in 2006], Mike DeWine -- I don't know why the Democrats went after him. He was a Democrat. He was a Republican, but he was actually a Democrat." Sherrod Brown, the actual Democrat, was, Burg allowed, "about a hundred yards to the left" of DeWine.) All of the NFIB attendees from Ohio would go to the meeting with Voinovich, to "let him know how we feel about what's going on up here, and reiterate everything," Burg said. "They need to be refreshed from time to time on how we feel about things, because they lose their way up here very easily."
Given the intensity of his views, I asked Burg what he made of the NFIB's reach across the partisan aisle on health care. Burg, to my surprise, was all for it. Though he started out saying that "having the government involved in health care is not a good thing, because the government is the least efficient way of delivering any service in the world," he called joining forces with the AARP "a historic move." "You have to start somewhere. We have total gridlock on this issue -- somebody has to reach out and say, 'here, let's see if we can compromise and come up with something.' How much we give and how much we get is to be seen yet, but I have a lot of faith in the people that are doing this."
After a few minutes, Meg Whitman came to the stage to introduce John McCain, so we turned our attention to the front. At the end of the speech, I asked Burg his opinion. Before McCain arrived, Burg expressed skepticism about the Arizona senator's conservative credentials. "I think it was a good speech," he said now. "I think his points are well-taken. Of course, he's addressing a small business group." Burg chuckled. He especially liked what he heard about ending earmarks and maintaining the tax cuts. "His goals are admirable, and certainly everybody would support most of those," he said. But "how much of it he could get done is another question."
As we finished our conversation, I asked Burg if he minded if I wrote about it. "I don't mind if you write about it," he said, and then he laughed. "Like all the athletes, I'll just say I was misquoted."