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Chamber ads divide small biz

Date: 
03/19/2010

By Ashlie Rodriguez

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it's fighting for small businesses, but not all small-business owners appreciate the effort.

After the chamber's launched its $4 million ad campaign against the health care bill Tuesday, the progressive Main Street Alliance pushed back, saying its members were being misrepresented and left without voice in the reform debate.

The Main Street Alliance, which represents about 10,000 small-business owners, is taking an aggressive stance against the chamber's ads and sent a handful of its members to protest an insurance industry convention this week. Illinois small-business owner Dan Sherry, who sits on the group's national board, said he was "at the front lines" of the protest because the alliance "wants Congress to listen to small-business owners, not the chamber." After the protests, Sherry met with a number of Illinois legislative aides to discuss his coalition's outlook.

"The U.S Chamber claims they talk for us when the truth is they're a fully owned subsidiary in the pockets of the insurance companies," Sherry said. "They represent strictly large businesses. To me it's an absolute tragedy that most Americans think that whatever the chamber says is the voice of small business when it's not."

That's not an accurate portrayal of the group's motives, says James Gelfand, the chamber's senior manager of health policy, who claims the reform stance "is 100 percent driven by the effects that it would have on premium payers, not on the people who would collect premiums."

While MSA supports the Senate health care bill because it "provides subsidies, helps small businesses provide for their employees and levels the playing field," Employers for a Healthy Economy, a group that supports the chamber's ad campaign, countered that the bill is "unaffordable" and will end up costing small businesses more in state penalties.

Not outright supporters of the chamber, but "in line" with their position on small businesses, the 350,000-member-strong National Federation of Independent Business called the bill "devastating" due to the employer mandates it will impose. NFIB spokesperson Stephanie Cathcart said costs "will be passed on to us, the little guys."

Molly Brogan, vice president of public affairs for the National Small Business Association, characterized her group's position as "somewhere between the two" extremes in an e-mail to National Journal.

"We've been calling for broad reform of the health care system since 2004, but it's got to be the right reform, and it's got to be affordable --which I think is the underlying issue [the chamber's] ads are trying to point out," she said.

Brogan said her organization agrees with the chamber that the costs of employer mandates are "unaffordable," but supports "long-term reductions in premium cost -- not just short-term tax credits."

"This debate is too important to walk away from or scrap entirely," Brogan continued, "but it's also too important not to get it done right."