As part of National Small Business Week (June 17-21), small business owners from across the Main Street Alliance network are speaking out on the top issues facing the nation.
Each day during Small Business Week, we're releasing a new "Straight Talk on Main Street" issue fact sheet providing unique small business perspective and analysis, on the following schedule:
- Monday - IMMIGRATION REFORM: Immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship strengthens consumer demand, boosts economy
- Tuesday - TAX FAIRNESS: Ending offshore tax dodging will level playing field for small business
- Wednesday - HEALTH CARE: Small business owners preparing for full implementation of health care reform
- Thursday - ECONOMY-BOOSTING JOBS: Small business engagement critical to growing momentum on Paid Sick Days
- Friday - MONEY IN POLITICS: Small businesses seek greater disclosure of secret political spending by corporations and trade associations
Melanie Collins, a small business leader with the Maine Small Business Coalition, traveled to Washington, DC on October 19 to speak at a press conference outside the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce challenging the Chamber's secret spending in the 2012 elections. Marking the U.S. Chamber's 100th birthday, Collins joined with organizations representing people across the country to deliver a simple message: The U.S. Chamber doesn't represent small business.
"Secrecy is at the heart of the Chamber's sales pitch," said Collins. "When I want to make my voice heard, I stand up and speak. I use my name. I think the Chamber's big donors should, too."
Collins added, "The most offensive part of all this special interest political spending is that they do it under the name of the small business owner. I call that small business identity theft. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn't speak for small businesses, and they don't speak for me."
The U.S. Chamber has already spent more than $1.3 on outside spending funding political advertisements in Maine's Senate race. Although many local chambers of commerce in Maine distanced themselves from the U.S. Chamber's initial ad buys, the Chamber continues to attack candidates for U.S. Senate in Maine under the guise of speaking for Maine small businesses. A week ago, the Chamber bought another $500,000 in ad time.
"When outside groups and big corporations like Anthem spend money to try to buy elections in Maine, small business owners from all across the state lose out," said Collins.
The U.S. Senate is in the midst of a marathon debate on the DISCLOSE Act, a proposal that would increase transparency in political spending. Unfortunately for small businesses, the bill is being blocked from an up or down vote by a filibuster led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
One of the justifications for blocking the bill is a claim that disclosure requirements for political spending will somehow harm businesses, both large and small. For small businesses, this couldn't be further from the truth.
Secrecy is what harms small businesses, not transparency. In fact, small businesses may be among the most shortchanged constituencies under the current system that allows secret spending to go unchecked. That's for two reasons:
First, because small businesses can't come close to matching the money poured into elections by big corporate actors and wealthy individuals. This means our voices can easily get drowned out in the deluge.
And second, to add insult to injury, big political spenders love to hide their secret spending behind a small business facade given the credibility small business carries as a messenger in the political and policy arenas.
Why else would a political group like Crossroads GPS (co-founded by Karl Rove) give $3.7 million to the National Federation of Independent Business in 2010, only to have NFIB turn around and spend $3.1 million on advertising through Crossroads Media, LLC (the primary media firm for Crossroads GPS)? This is a case of Karl Rove in small business clothing.
And why else would the health insurance industry plow $102.4 million into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to fund its attacks on health care reform in the name of small businesses, at the same time that AHIP members were publicly supporting the concept of health care reform?
Let's call these covert activities what they are: small business identity theft. They're stealing the good name of small business to advance the agenda of big special interests. The current regime of secrecy is aiding and abetting this identity theft.
Secrecy is not a small business value. Let's pass the DISCLOSE Act so small businesses can stop worrying about who's going to steal their identity next and get back to doing what they do best: serving customers, creating jobs, and building strong local economies.
A few days ago, the Main Street Alliance asked small business owners to share what they wanted to hear the President talk about in his upcoming State of the Union address.
We asked: “As a small business owner, what policies would you like to hear the President put forward in the State of the Union Address as part of a vision for supporting small businesses and building an economy that works for the 99 percent in 2012?”
Here are some excerpts from responses we got:
Deborah, owner of a printing and design company in Oregon:
“Help Americans who are having problems with their mortgages – by helping them not lose their homes, they will have more discretionary income to spend and that income can be used to support their local businesses.
“Eliminate tax breaks for large corporations – if they are not keeping their money in the U.S., they should not receive tax breaks.
“And keep on creating jobs – we are a consumer-driven economy and without jobs, Americans do not have money to consume which causes a snowball effect and decreases sales for small businesses.”
Mario, owner of a tax preparation business in Illinois:
“Shine a light on corporate political spending that tilts the playing field against small businesses.”
Bob, owner of a professional training business in Ohio:
“Small and micro businesses do not worry about regulations and taxes. We worry about consumer demand and consumer confidence that promotes business growth. The one percent worry about taxes and regulations so they can play the system to their own advantage.”
Jim, owner of an auto repair shop in Oregon:
“We have so many hard working Americans who can't find jobs. Right here in Portland, many young people are looking for work. They joined the Occupy movement to get some attention for their plight. We have so much work that needs to be done. Teachers need to be rehired, schools and other public buildings need to be upgraded for energy efficiency. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, some of our biggest corporations are hoarding trillions of dollars right now. If they and other wealthy Americans were paying their fair share in taxes, this country would have the money necessary to engage small businesses to hire people into meaningful work, and I would have customers again. When the economy gets back on its feet, then we’ll have the tax revenues needed to pay down our deficit.”
Jose, owner of a real estate agency in Oregon:
“We, small business owners, are an optimistic bunch. We also get right to the point. We need the State of the Union address to set the tone for a great 2012. We do not have a lot of time to complain, as we have to work with the hand we are dealt. The one issue which would bring me more customers and allow me to hire more employees is comprehensive immigration reform. Our housing industry is stalled and motivating a new generation of homebuyers to enter the market will be a big step in the right direction. Our immigration system has to be fixed...let's do it right this time!”
Halcyon, owner of a retail shop in Maine:
“By reducing military spending and ending the wars, we will be able to afford to offer every citizen the basic coverages of health care, increasing job security and mobility, and business formation. We’ll be able to reduce business expenses substantially for Main Street businesses in low population, greying regions of our country – like rural Maine – and make sure fewer of our health care dollars go into the pockets of corporations and more into the delivery of health care.”
Kelly, owner of a custom woodworking business in New Jersey:
“I would like to hear the President talk about 'Real American Companies' and highlight the real contributions they make by employing people here, paying taxes here, and investing here. The President could announce a program to recognize and reward ‘Real American Companies.’ I keep thinking of a heavy machinery company that could build their machines in China, but they don’t. They have kept American jobs – high skill, high paying jobs – here, along with profits and reinvestment, so they should get a business version of the Medal of Freedom.
“This award could include a ‘Presidential Flag’ to be flown outside the corporate headquarters of companies that have won the award. Of course, we could have another award – a corporate turkey award – for companies that cheat on their taxes, move profits and jobs offshore, or manipulate the law in other ways to cheat their employees and the communities that support them.”
Two years ago on January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. In a divided 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that corporations are free to spend unlimited sums of money in our country’s elections.
There’s been plenty of debate about what this ruling means for our elections and for deep-pocketed special interests. But there’s been virtually no attention paid to what it means for small businesses, or what small business owners think about the Citizens United decision. That is, until now…
On January 18, the Main Street Alliance partnered with allies at the American Sustainable Business Council and Small Business Majority to release results relating to Citizens United from an independent poll of 500 small business owners nationwide. The poll asked small business owners whether they thought the Supreme Court’s decision was good or bad for small businesses.
So, what do small business owners think about Citizens United? Turns out, they’re not big fans. In fact, 66 percent of small business owners believe the Citizens United decision is bad for small businesses, compared to only 9 percent who think it’s good. That’s a margin of 7 to 1. Click here to read the report.
Why such strong condemnation of the Supreme Court’s ruling? In the words of Melanie Collins, owner of Melanie’s Home Childcare in Falmouth, Maine and a leader with the Maine Small Business Coalition and Main Street Alliance, “Small business owners aren’t stupid. We know who wins when corporate heavy hitters can spend all the money they want, as secretively as they want, to influence our country’s elections – and it’s not us.”
Collins added, “The Citizens United decision stacked the deck against small businesses. We’ve got to unstack that deck.”
And that’s what the Main Street Alliance is fighting to do, with an “unstack the deck” sign-on statement for small business owners about money in politics and a campaign against “dark money” – that is, contributions to third party groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that can’t be traced back to the source.
Small business owners are uniting against Citizens United.
Commentary: Why Do Small Businesses Support E.O. on Contractor Political Spending? Because "Deniability" is Not a Small Business Value
That’s why it’s encouraging to hear news of a potential executive order from the Obama Administration that would require government contractors to disclose their political spending if they surpass a $5,000 threshold. It’s a small step, to be sure, compared to the big problems of covert political spending and a broken campaign finance system. But it’s a step in the right direction (see this May 4 post from OMB Watch for more background on the potential order).
Not everyone in the business community seems to feel this way, though. In an interview for an April 26 New York Times story, R. Bruce Josten, top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber “is not going to tolerate” the proposed transparency order.
Transparency is a Main Street value. Small business owners take pride in being straight-shooting, “what you see is what you get” business people. So why is the U.S. Chamber out guns blazing against this proposal?
You don’t have to dig far to find out. It turns out over 50 of the companies represented on the U.S. Chamber’s board of directors are government contractors, and to the tune of a whopping $44 billion in 2010, according to an analysis compiled by U.S. Chamber Watch.
So, that means almost half of the companies represented on the U.S. Chamber's board – including the likes of Lockheed Martin, Pfizer, Verizon, WellPoint, JPMorgan Chase, and even the U.S. Chamber itself – would have to disclose both their direct and indirect political spending. The indirect part is key, because it means contributions given by companies to the U.S. Chamber for political purposes – like the health insurance industry’s $86.2 million bankrolling of the Chamber’s anti-health reform activities in 2009 – would be part of required disclosures.
To understand why this is just so “intolerable” an idea to the Chamber, it helps to understand the organization’s business model. James Verini wrote about this in the Washington Monthly’s July/August 2010 issue, quoting an interview with U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue:
“I asked Donohue what, exactly, the Chamber does. ‘Two fundamental things,’ he replied. ‘We’re advocates. Sure we do studies, sure we do events, sure we do meetings, sure we have all kinds of stuff, but we’re advocates.’ And then he surprised me again with his candor. ‘The second thing we do is really more interesting,’ he said. ‘We’re the reinsurance industry for individual industry associations and state chambers of commerce and people of that nature.’”What did Donohue mean by “reinsurance?” Verini elaborates later in his article:
“In other words, a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. ‘I want to give them all the deniability they need,’ says Donohue.”“All the deniability they need.” That’s why the Chamber is so up in arms about the proposed executive order – because it will take away that “deniability” by laying bare which corporations are laundering their political contributions through third parties, undermining one of the core benefits the Chamber offers to its high-roller members.
Deniability is not a small business value. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of one - the value of doing what you say and saying what you do. Small business owners take responsibility for their actions. Big corporations should, too, including their political spending, and that’s why the Obama Administration should forge ahead with this executive order. It would be a victory for transparency and for a more level playing field for America’s small businesses.