Voice of America
How does the most powerful U.S. small-business lobbyist prevail over the opinion polls?

(FORTUNE Magazine) – According to a recent Gallup poll, a large majority of Americans believe rich folks and corporations pay too little in taxes (68% and 69%, respectively); a slim majority (51%) also think the poor pay too much. Other polls show that as many as 80% favor an increase in the minimum wage. Those are mainstream points of view. If you share them, you probably believe that what is good for the average working consumer is also good for your small business. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), however, believes that what is good for small business is good for America. Name a legislative initiative that could be seen as promoting the common good--universal health care, a higher minimum wage, expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, preservation of the estate tax (excuse me, death tax)--and the NFIB is against it. In fact, the NFIB probably brags about killing it.

"[Our members] would say the best thing for the common good is for America to grow and prosper--that it's better to help me hire somebody than to keep paying somebody welfare," says Jack Faris, 63, the NFIB's long-serving CEO, who will retire next spring. We're lunching in Washington, D.C., at Tosca, where Faris rates a corner table. At 6-foot-1, he cuts an imposing figure even when sitting down. "If we had a $10 million exclusion on the death tax, 98% of our members would not be touched," Faris continues. "But you know what? They don't want it. Because one day they hope to be that wealthy."

There you have a key to understanding NFIB's clout: We're not all rich, but we all believe we could be one day. And an awful lot of us--more than 21 million Americans will file a Schedule C with their tax returns this year, according to the IRS--see small business as the path to riches. Which is why Faris gets frequent calls from the White House, asking him to supply authentic entrepreneurs willing to appear onstage with the President. Joel Marks, founder of the much smaller American Small Business Alliance, dismisses the NFIB as "little more than a tool for big corporations and the right wing of the Republican Party." If Marks is correct, then rarely has there been a Washington lobby more adept at framing a special-interest agenda in ways that appeal to a huge chunk of the electorate.

Among the big wins under Faris's watch: blocking the Clinton health-care plan in 1993 ("We got three members to change their votes in committee"), ousting the Democratic majority from the House in 1994 ("I do know what we did in certain districts, because I've got the numbers"), repealing the estate tax (if not yet permanently), and last fall replacing South Dakota Democrat (and former Senate minority leader) Tom Daschle with Republican John Thune. "We moved out a major obstacle to small business in the Senate, and we put in a champion," says Faris. "We didn't just move the needle a little bit. We moved it from here" (indicating the bread-plate side of his table setting) "to here" (indicating the wineglass side).

In his final months at the NFIB, Faris hopes to influence the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. And what is he looking for? "A strict constructionist who lets the legislature legislate," says Faris. "We want a person with a history in the legal community of fairness." Fairness. Who could argue with that? ■