Key small business group missing from big lobbying battle of the year

The National Federation of Independent Business, which bills itself as “The Voice of Small Business”, has been virtually silent in perhaps the biggest policy battle affecting small businesses in Congress this year: debit-card transaction fees.

Aside from posting a relatively obscure statement of support on its website, NFIB, one of the most powerful trade associations in Washington, has largely stayed out of the fight.

Congressional aides, business lobbyists and small-business owners around the country who favor capping debit-card fees say that NFIB’s lack of action is puzzling and disappointing.

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“They started out as an organization supported by small businesses and there are still a lot of small businesses that belong,” said Mary Noel Black, who owns a UPS franchise in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Oddly enough, they haven’t come on board, they haven’t come out one way or the other, which is unusual.”

Black, who participated in a conference call with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who’s led the charge to cap debit-card fees, said the issue “is very important to small merchants, the real small businesses.”

Black said she paid $400 in debit-card fees in March. She calculates she would have paid only $70 if those fees were capped at 12 cents per transaction, as the Federal Reserve has proposed in a rulemaking process that will become final on July 21.

NFIB expressed its support for limiting debit-card fees in a restrained statement posted under the “issues” section of its website. But it’s a far cry from the concerted advertising and grassroots lobbying battle that other organizations such as the Retail Industry Leaders Association are engaged in.

But NFIB, despite Durbin’s urging, declined to vocally support the amendment that Durbin offered successfully to last year’s Wall Street reform bill, directing the Federal Reserve to study debit-card fees.

One member of the coalition that supports a limit on fees said the NFIB’s “lack of intensity” is “disappointing.”

Another member said, “This is the biggest small-business issue of the year and NFIB’s not involved.”

Three different spokespersons for NFIB did not respond Friday afternoon to requests for comment.

Erick Cedano, who owns a small photo lab in Elizabeth, N.J., said he hasn’t heard from NFIB on swipe-fees. Instead, he is working with the Main Street Alliance, a network of state-based small business coalitions.

“There are groups that are going to Washington saying they’ll help small businesses but are not truly helping small businesses with only three, four or five employees,” Cedano said.

He began questioning NFIB’s representation of businesses such as his after NFIB opposed the 2010 healthcare reform law.

Last year, NFIB’s president called the new healthcare law “death by a thousand cuts for small business owners.”

NFIB’s low profile in the battle over debit-card swipe fees has been noticed by business lobbyists on K Street.

“It has been noted downtown that NFIB has been more or less AWOL,” said one business lobbyist.

Other trade associations representing small business retailers have carried the load in opposing an amendment proposed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) that would direct the Fed to delay implementation of a cap on swipe-fees.

Durbin, who has led the opposition to Tester’s amendment, has called it a tactic to quietly kill the Fed’s rule.

Durbin and his allies in the small-business and retail community have been locked in a megabattle with banking interests, a lobbying war that has covered Washington's Metro cars with advertising.

Brian Dodge, senior vice president of communications at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said swipe fees is a huge issue for small businesses.

“For most small businesses, it’s the second-highest fee they pay,” he said. “For the last 10 months, [small businesses] have been expecting these fees to come into alignment with costs. Now you have some in Congress trying to take a swipe at this relief.”

In the last three months, the Retail Industry Leaders Association has brought the representatives of nearly 200 small businesses to Washington to lobby in favor of the rulemaking.

The group has also conducted a grassroots advertising campaign.

Other groups that have been active are the Main Street Alliance, which helped organize a conference call with Durbin last week; the Food Marketing Institute; the National Grocers Association; the National Restaurant Association; the National Retail Federation; and the Consumer Federation of America.

Small business groups won a victory recently when a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Reid would oppose Tester’s amendment.

“He feels it’s unfair to small businesses,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said of the Tester measure.