Nation’s largest small-business group faces fresh skepticism over new link to ALEC

Organization maintains its interest is purely policy, not politics


The NFIB contends that its policy positions are determined solely based on feedback from its members, most of whom are small business owners. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group in Washington, calls itself the voice of small business as well as a nonpartisan, nonprofit association.

Liberal groups have long scoffed at both descriptions, citing the group’s largely one-sided lobbying record and its roster of financial backers. Now, they appear to have found fresh ammunition in their attacks on the organization, courtesy of the a new tie between the NFIB and a decidely right-leaning advocacy group.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, which connects state lawmakers with private sector executives to discuss and craft legislation, recently added Steve Woods, NFIB’s senior vice president in charge of state operations, to its private enterprise council. ALEC, which is based in nearby Arlington, Va. and counts more than 2,000 lawmakers as its members, says that the council serves in an advisory role to its board of directors.

ALEC has garnered a reputation for promoting conservative-friendly policies, and in many cases, critics have cast those policies in a cozy-with-big-business light. Nearly every lawmaker on ALEC’s leadership team is a Republican, and a story by the Atlantic in 2012 suggested the group is heavily involved with conservative bills introduced at the state level.

On the advisory council, Woods will be sitting alongside executives from corporate titans like Exxon, Pfizer, AT&T, SAP and State Farm — as well as the head of public and government affairs for Koch Industries, according to ALEC’s Web site.

Some liberal groups are using this link between ALEC and NFIB to poke holes in the latter’s long-running that its voice is bothnonpartisan and that of small business.

“It marks perhaps the final step towards the NFIB abandoning any pretense of being a nonpartisan representative of small business owners,” Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the liberal-leaning Center for Media and Democracy, wrote in a blog post last week. By allowing one of its leaders to serve on the board, he argued, NFIB aligns itself with an association that “allows big business interests to peddle influence” with state lawmakers.

NFIB officials adamantly disagree. Eric Reller, a spokesperson for the group, said that Woods’s involvement is entirely personal and “not in a capacity for NFIB.” Moreover, the group’s executives have consistently pushed back against accusations of holding a political agenda by stating that their stance on policy disputes are determined entirely by feedback from NFIB’s more than 350,000 members, a majority of which are small business owners.

Reller noted that the group is a member of ALEC but maintained that “our focus is on initiatives that impact small business.”

Still, this isn’t the first evidence of a close relationship between the NFIB and conservative interest groups. In the midst of its lawsuit against the health care law two years ago, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, the NFIB took heat from Democratic lawmakers after they learned that the group received a $3.7 million grant from Crossroads GPS, a Republican Super PAC linked to Karl Rove.

It was later revealed that the group has received a number of donations, totaling more than $2.5 million, from political organizations tied to the ultra-conservative and ultra-wealthy Koch brothers. Information unearthed by the Center For Media and Democracy shows that nearly all of the NFIB’s campaign contributions have gone to Republicans.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.

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