By Kevin Bogardus - 03/28/12 11:50 PM EDT
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is gunning for the history books with its challenge to President Obama’s healthcare law, and it has boosted its status among Washington’s business groups in the process.
The small-business lobby, along with 26 states, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the healthcare law that the Supreme Court considered this week. The case has attracted wall-to-wall media coverage and raised the potential for a history-making precedent — one that would be linked forever to the NFIB.
“To a great extent, it’s a return to their roots, which is representing small business against big government, whether federal or state,” said John Motley, a former NFIB vice president of legislative affairs during the Clinton healthcare fight. “It certainly elevates NFIB. The heads of other major business organizations are probably thinking, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”
Barring a Republican sweep in the November election, the lawsuit might be the best chance for opponents of President Obama’s healthcare law to overturn it. Efforts to repeal the legislation in full have stalled in Congress, though some progress has been made in rolling back small portions of it.
Dan Danner, NFIB’s president and CEO, said his group tried to convince lawmakers that the individual mandate was unconstitutional during the debate over the law, which led them to join the lawsuit challenging it.
“When we first filed, there were lots of people across town — people in the administration, people on the Hill — that said this was foolish, it was all politically motivated, and tended to dismiss it out of hand,” Danner said. “We would certainly say given the historic amount of oral debate by the Supreme Court and the attention that it’s getting now, no one is saying this is a silly effort anymore.”
The hoopla surrounding the Supreme Court case has given the business group unprecedented national exposure. NFIB staffers have been camped out in the courtroom or on the front steps of the Supreme Court during this week’s proceedings. On its website, NFIB asks visitors to sign a pledge in support of the group’s bid to “make history” and “repeal ObamaCare.”
Danner said the NFIB’s 350,000 members expect the group to be aggressive.
“Are we getting good exposure in town? Absolutely. But is that why we got into this? Absolutely not,” Danner said. “We are certainly not against the kind of visibility and exposure we are getting, but the bottom line is we are doing this because this is what our members want and expect.”
Danner could not give a precise estimate for how much the healthcare lawsuit is costing NFIB, though he said it “is a number of millions.”
“We gave a lot of thought on that on day one because, once you put your foot in the door for this, you have to anticipate that if you’re successful, it goes to the Supreme Court, and there’s a cost involved,” Danner said.
Many credit Danner — who joined NFIB in 1993 and took charge in 2009 — for the group’s no-holds-barred approach.
“They are a different animal. It is kind of the Dan Danner model. They are very strategic, and it pays off,” said Ralph Hellmann, a former NFIB lobbyist who is now a partner at the Lugar Hellmann Group.
On May 14, 2010 — just two months after passage of the healthcare reform law — NFIB announced that the group was joining the legal challenge by the states. At the time, other business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), did not join in.
Danner said he knew that NFIB was taking a risk with the lawsuit.
“If we want to wait around to see which way the wind is blowing, we are not very effective as an organization. There are times when you’ve got to say, ‘We’ve got to have some guts. That’s the right thing to do, so let’s do it.’ So that’s the decision we made,” Danner said. “I think we are prouder than ever of that decision today.”
Later, in October 2011, the chamber would file an amicus brief to NFIB’s lawsuit, one of five amicus briefs the group filed in different courts challenging the law. The chamber has also worked to modify the law’s regulations, lobbied for changes on Capitol Hill and sponsored voter educations ads.
NFIB does lean toward the GOP. So far this election cycle, 98 percent of the more than $200,000 given by the group’s political action committee has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Danner said that’s a reflection of the group’s membership, who “are entrepreneurs and risk-takers and philosophically they believe in less government, less regulation and lower taxes.”
“If one party supports that more than the other, then we support people who support small business in those positions,” Danner said.
NFIB has also come under criticism that it doesn’t really represent small business.
Helen Dally was on the Supreme Court steps Tuesday, speaking on behalf of herself and her parents, who own a Portland, Ore., auto shop. She said that her family’s business has received almost $13,000 in small-business tax credits and its employees’ health insurance premiums have gone down 3 percent since the law was passed.
“NFIB definitely doesn’t speak for me,” Dally said. “I don’t think they speak on behalf on the majority of small businesses in this country.”
The Main Street Alliance, a small-business group that supports the law, helped organize Dally’s trip to Washington.
Danner said he thinks NFIB’s critics are “surprised and pretty frustrated” that the lawsuit has gotten this far and said they can “throw up all the smoke you want.”
Motley, formerly with NFIB but now a partner at Policy Solutions Motley-Scher-Truitt, said whatever the Supreme Court decides, NFIB has already won.
“They have gotten credit for being courageous. They have gotten credit for being true to their members and their philosophy of government. That’s where they won,” Motley said. “And if you look at the business community, they have won there too, because they were first out on this lawsuit and their name’s on it.
“I don’t care what the decision is,” Motley said. “They still won.”