Small Business Goes to Washington

White House conference broke down stereotypes and produced useful ideas

THE nearly 2,000 owners of small businesses who gathered in Washington last month for the White House Conference on Small Business have returned to their hairdressing salons, advertising agencies, and aircraft-parts manufacturing operations.

They have memories of appearances by the nation's top elected and appointed officials: the president, vice president, Speaker of the House, Senate majority leader, and secretaries of Commerce and Treasury, among many others.

And they have the satisfaction of knowing that they completed their work, sending to the White House and Congress a package of 60 recommendations for policy changes affecting small business that covered everything from taxes to environmental regulations to community development.

Did this much-ballyhooed conference actually accomplish anything? The answer is an emphatic yes. It showed that:

* Orderly democracy is still possible. There were rumors at the start that diversionary debates about rules would prevent consideration of the real issues. But the rules debates were contained. The delegates developed an orderly process for debating proposals, offering amendments, and setting their priorities. Government officials made intelligent and thoughtful presentations. Afterward, the delegates caucused by state and interest group, lobbied one another, and voted. When it was over, they had reduced more than 400 proposals to 60 recommendations. Equally impressive, the business-owner delegates weren't there as part of some boondoggle. They took leave of their businesses for four days and paid more than $2,000 each from their own pockets to be on hand for this first such national conference in nine years.

* Government officials are becoming more businesslike. There was a clear shift in the attitude of officials toward business owners. Rather than mouthing platitudes, officials came armed with proposals. For example, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Carol Browner, offered a ''Common Sense Compliance Program'' that gives business owners found to be in violation of environmental regulations a six-month grace period to fix problems before fines are considered. President Clinton said he had ordered the cutting of 16,000 pages of regulations, and then had them brought out, bundled together in red tape.

Probably the most-often-repeated line was a variation on what Small Business Administration (SBA) Deputy Administrator Cassandra Pulley told attendees: ''We are continually trying to figure out ways to do more with less.'' Even the Internal Revenue Service commissioner said that it now considers Americans to be its ''customers.''

* Small businesses are more diverse than we realize. Politicians and journalists like to talk about ''the small-business community'' as if all small businesses are concerned about the same things. The conference made it clear that small businesses have nearly as many concerns and issues as there are small businesses.

One issue that most united delegates was taxes. In large numbers, they endorsed a return to 100 percent deductibility of entertainment expenses and common-sense tax treatment of home-based businesses and use of independent contractors. But on an assortment of other issues, there were tensions and contradictions. You would expect a gathering of small-business owners to endorse a flat income tax and a reduction in capital gains taxes, which it did. More surprising was passage of a proposal that warns against wholesale elimination of affirmative action and other proposals calling for special support for inner-city businesses.

While there was endorsement of a balanced budget, there were also a number of proposals calling on the president and Congress to maintain funding for small-business interests like the SBA as well as proposals to establish new funds for employee training, assistance to small businesses hurt by large competitors, and financing for technology companies. Who says business owners differ from the population at large?

Small businesses are responsible for more than half of both the nation's gross domestic product and new job creation. This historic session was thus not only a flicker of political hope, but of economic hope as well.

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