It's sometimes worth remembering that the National Federation of Independent Business is not the only small business lobby crawling the corridors of Washington power. The National Small Business Association was founded in 1937, and claims 150,000 members. This morning, it's unveiling an economic initiative for the President-Elect Obama and the incoming Congress called "Think Big. Start Small."
So what does the NSBA have in "Think Big. Start Small." -- besides a catchy title and a splashy homepage? The NSBA takes a centrist tack -- some conservative curmudgeons might say "liberal" -- and like John Kerry reporting to duty at the 2004 convention with a smart salute, the NSBA tells its members that it "stands ready to work with lawmakers and the administration in addressing the many issues facing the U.S. today." The organization urges the Obama Administration to call a "White House Conference on Small Business," where presumably these NSBA initiatives, among many others, would be discussed:
*Addressing the small business credit crunch with "near-term strategies and contingencies."
*Strengthening the SBA and making its loans more affordable.
*Making sure small firms get a big piece of any new "green jobs" initiative.
*Moving toward a "health care system that reduces costs, improves quality, and covers all as expeditiously as the fiscal climate will allow."
*Backing off heightened tax collection measures aimed at small firms.
So what do we think? To me, this reads a little bit like the Democratic Party Platform, much the way the NFIB agenda reads like the Republican platform -- though not because the agenda strikes me as particularly liberal or partisan. It doesn't. Rather, I'm thinking about the distinction New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai found several years ago between the two parties. Democratic promises amount "to a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life," Bai wrote in 2005. "The Republican version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country."
The NSBA maintains strict political neutrality, and the NFIB is rather less strict, but it's not hard to see where their M.O.s align. The NFIB takes strong positions*: it opposes tax increases on the wealthy; it opposes so-called card check legislation. The NSBA tends toward inoffensive platitudes or seeks a Clinton-style third way. It doesn't strictly oppose tax increases on the wealthy, but it would exclude pass-through income from the hike. It urges that card check be "deferred until the many small business questions about this legislation can be answered." The NFIB wants to repeal the "death tax;" the NSBA would "permanently reform the estate tax by instituting a significant exemption indexed for inflation." And when the NSBA does take a firm line, it's pretty small-bore. (For instance: "Oppose IRS harassment!" or "Reform unfair credit card practices!") It's hard to tease out a grand vision here.
Of course, you don't need a vision to lobby Congress. But you do need one to attract a membership, and this might explain, in part, why the NSBA claims to represent 150,000 firms, and the NFIB claims 350,000.
*To be fair, I should point out I've criticized the NFIB for have-it-both-ways nonsense on health care, much like the NSBA's statement above.