Sunday, June 14, 2009

It’s all about herding cats and pushing wet noodles

I’ve always admired Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican who led the Senate back in the 1980s. He’s frequently quoted as having likened Congressional leadership to “herding cats” and the process of enacting legislation to “pushing a wet noodle”. I never appreciated the truth of his witticisms until now.

The political process of getting legislation through the system and having laws enacted has very little to do with logic. Cats have never been swayed by logic. They respond only when they’re offered something that interests them or when they’re hungry.

What are our legislators interested in? Let’s see…I know! Getting re-elected! What gets them re-elected? Money to spend on campaigns. What they’ve done or haven’t done - unless it’s really egregious - doesn’t really seem to matter.

What are they hungry for? Let’s see...I know! Money! What's the only thing they’re allowed to use contributed money for? Their re-election campaigns! Hmmmm…

Nowhere in this mix does logic play a role. That’s our problem. We’ve been trying to herd cats using logic. Those who would reshape the SBIR Program are using money, not logic. That’s gotten the cats’ attention, and their affection. We’re ignored. Cats are really good at ignoring.

All of our arguments about how small business creates jobs and how innovation drives economic growth are immaterial to the wet noodle process of influencing policy and enacting legislation. Those at the far end of the noodle are oblivious to what’s happening at our end. They don’t feel the effects of our pushing. They’re not even aware that we are pushing!

I attended a two day NSBA meeting in Washington DC last week, their 72nd annual Washington Presentation. We were provided with two briefings – one at the White House and another at the Capitol.

The White House briefing featured people who ostensibly influence administration policy that affects small business. Mostly we heard bureaucratic rhetoric.

The economist who spoke, Jason Furman, he of the impressive resume, was largely incomprehensible to most of us. He served as Obama’s economic advisor during the presidential election campaign, and now holds a key post on the National Economic Council. Small business is merely a small statistic to him. He had no idea how to talk meaningfully to us.

Health care was promoted by Dr. Robert Kocher, President Obama’s Special Assistant on Health-Care Policy. He talked up how much better health care was going to be, including the important role of small business in creating innovative technologies and systems to improve the quality of care, etc., etc. But in response to my question about why the Administration had allowed HHS, its health care agency, to exclude small business from its ARRA Stimulus funding, he was caught flat-footed and speechless, obviously completely unaware of the situation. He actually took out his pad and jotted a note. His end of that noodle had no idea that our end was in convulsions!

The obligatory SBA speaker, Penny Pickett, is the point person in SBA Director Mills’ office for entrepreneurial development including SBIR. Mostly she talked about SBA loan programs. SBIR was only mentioned once, in passing. I was really disappointed. Kinda tells us the priority SBIR has with the SBA, doesn’t it?

The next morning, at the Capitol briefing, we, of the National Small Business Association, were addressed by no less than six Representatives and a Senator. You’d think that at least one of them would be serving on either the House or Senate Small Business Committee. Nope. How sad is that? Sure points out how important small business really is to them.

Only one speaker, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), took a single question. I was privileged to ask it: “What is Congress doing to halt the attempt of larger businesses to redefine and manipulate what is meant by a “small business” to their advantage?” Her answer indicated that she did not realize that there were multiple standards for defining a small business. When I challenged her on that she actually stammered a moment before giving a stock answer and promising to look into the situation. Yeah. Right. Not a clue, and not her problem.

So, it appears the cats in the House are going to do their thing and pass (some would say steamroll) an SBIR Reauthorization bill that pleases the ones who feed them. Our logic, recitation of facts, and clamoring for attention will be ignored. We can push noodles all day long to no effect.

The bottom line: Small business is great for making popular points in political speeches. Always gets applause. But will other than token money be put up to fulfill the promises? Nope. Not by these cats.

More’s the pity.


Research Entrepreneur said...

[Covering his ears] I'm not listening... Here, kitty kitty kitty.... here, kitty kitty. You like tuna, don't you?

Carl Nelson said...

While Congress pretends that platitudes stir voters, it is not stirred by platitudes from pleaders. Since economic conditions out there are already demanding more federal government money than the government has, the threshold for handouts has risen to save California and General Motors from collapse. On that scale, SBIR's platitude-rich message has no clout.