He got his start in Washington in 1978 working for Armco Steel (now AK Steel) after “a gentleman at a steel company in Ohio gave me an opportunity.” That man was C. William Verity Jr., the former chairman of Armco, who a decade later became President Reagan’s Commerce secretary and tapped Danner to serve as his chief of staff. Danner came to the NFIB in 1993 after a friend, former Rep. Mike McKevitt (R-Colo.), recommended him for an opening.
He has been there ever since.
PowerPost asked Danner to look back at his tenure at NFIB, and to weigh in on the biggest political and policy issues that are impacting the business community, Paul Ryan’s performance as House Speaker and what a Trump or Clinton presidency would mean for small business.
Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m going to chill out for a little bit. I’m not a good couch-sitter. I’m kind of a policy political geek so I do want to stay involved somehow, I just haven’t figured out what that is yet.
Q: How has lobbying changed during your time at NFIB?
A: Two things. One, the partisan nature of Washington, as well as the country as a whole, has changed pretty dramatically. We have pretty hard red states and blue states, and we have that same division here in Washington. When I started with NFIB, we were very close to the Blue Dogs. We had a lot of great friends that were conservative Democrats, Blue Dogs, in Southern states and elsewhere, and that’s just different now. There are not many moderates of either party, moderate or conservative Democrats in the middle, not many bridge-builders. I think that’s a shame. That is difficult.
Secondly, I think something that’s always been our strength as an organization, but is even more important now, is the grassroots back home — putting a real face on complicated issues. Real people on Main Street saying, “I’m Betty’s Flowers, this is why this is important to me.” That’s even more important now from a lobbying standpoint. To understand back home, be back home, and do things back in the districts, and let [lawmakers] know what people on Main Street back home are thinking. If you don’t, as the past couple cycles have shown, no matter who you are, you can be beat if you’re too isolated.
Q: Do you think those two changes are related to one another?
A: Yes, on some level. The partisan nature of the country and of Washington is pretty complicated. It’s everything from instantaneous news and single-issue groups and the online phenomenon. Not only do people know how you vote — that’s a good thing — but they know seconds after you vote. I do think at some level the single-issue groups are difficult and not necessarily a good thing, on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s very, very hard to be a statesman or a stateswoman today because there are groups that will savage you if you take one vote [on an issue]. I think that’s a shame because I think there are big issues that involve the country and are solvable with reasonable people in a room, but it’s hard to get there in this environment.
Q: How does that affect NFIB, or business groups generally?
A: The partisanship makes it more difficult to get anything done. You look at the last couple Congresses and how difficult it’s been to get anything done. Things that used to be, frankly, comparatively easy, like defense appropriations, were always relatively bipartisan … getting a highway bill done was usually fairly straightforward. And everything is difficult today. I think for us as an organization, we just keep focusing on the significance of small business. That small business is half the economy, half the GDP, they create a majority of the jobs. We just keep reminding people on all ends of the spectrum that small business is not partisan. That whatever party you’re in, they’re still pretty much the backbone of the country. So we hope that policies that allow more people to start [businesses] and encourage entrepreneurs and risk takers is something everyone agrees on. But it’s hard in this environment.
Q: What do you consider some of your biggest policy wins?
A: A big victory we’re very proud of that just occurred in the year-end grab bag was making permanent Section 179 expensing [a provision in the tax code that allows small businesses to deduct up to $500,000 a year for office equipment and machinery]. We’ve been working on that my entire tenure here. That is something small businesses will absolutely take advantage of. It makes a big difference in terms of cash flow for a lot of small businesses. That’s one of the bigger victories in recent years.
There are still as many challenges are there are victories over the years. There are still big challenges in healthcare affordability and availability. For us, even though we didn’t win [the legal case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, NFIB v. Sebelius], it was definitely a milestone for NFIB and our legal foundation to have a case that was NFIB’s case. That was quite a milestone for us as an organization. It wasn’t anyone else, it was ours. Although the outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for, it still said that in terms of not just the lobby and legislative community, but in the legal community, that we are a player. I think that’s significant.
Q: Do you think the Affordable Care Act is here to stay?
A: I think there will be continued efforts to trim it back. In this year-end package, the [two-year] delay of the Cadillac Tax [a 40 percent tax on high-cost, employer-sponsored health plans] could end up being permanent. Delays have a way of doing that. I think the HIT tax [health insurance tax, which was delayed one year] also looks like it’ll continue to be questioned, and those are two of the largest funders, the biggest pay-fors, for the ACA. And I think that just the two of those certainly leave the ACA on much less firm ground going forward, that will probably continue.
Q: What are some tangible examples of ACA hurting small business?
A: The first and most important is that one of the promises of ACA was affordability. That doesn’t appear to be coming to fruition. Our guys, the majority of small businesses, are still having significant premium increases. Healthcare is not becoming more affordable.
The second is all the mandates that are part of the ACA are difficult and complicated for a lot of small businesses. The employer mandate, the individual mandate, there’s a whole lot of reporting and added paperwork for small businesses. If you do provide or don’t provide [insurance], either way … you could be, under certain circumstances, fined. The two big things were going to be more choice and lower cost. And right now, it doesn’t appear either of those are happening for small business. They’re having fewer choices, the state exchanges are having difficulty, so in a lot of cases they have less choice and higher cost. That’s a 180-degree difference from what the promises were.
Q: What do you think of Paul Ryan as House speaker so far? Will he be able to end dysfunction to get things done in Congress?
A: Speaker Ryan is off to a great start. He’s a good friend, he’s been a good friend of small business, of NFIB. Wisconsin is pretty heavily a small business state. I think he did a fantastic job getting through the end of the year. He seems to have gotten great reviews from all sides of his caucus. I think there are clearly a lot more challenges ahead. Things that the Speaker has been passionate about, like broader tax reform, that’s an enormous challenge, of making significant changes to entitlements, which has always been a top priority for Paul Ryan. Right now, he’s gotten pretty universal accolades from our perspective. I hope he can continue to bring some functionality and civility to the House of Representatives.
Q: Has the GOP majority in Congress delivered for business? How so?
A: I think they have delivered. Not to the extent some would hope. They made some steps forward to try to reign in ACA. They’ve pushed really hard. It hasn’t had much of an impact yet, to try and hold back some of the avalanche of new regulations. They passed things by the House and Senate. I don’t think much of anything that puts a damper on regulations will be signed by the president, but I think they’ve set some markers at least in terms of the regulatory avalanche. They’ve made progress. Probably in reality, not as much progress as some people would’ve hoped, but it is still a three-legged stool — it’s going to take the House and Senate and agreement by the President to get anything done. I think this last going-out-the door piece of legislation was a demonstration of how hard that is.
Q: What do you think a Trump presidency would mean for small business?
A: I’d be hesitant to even go there. It’s hard for me to imagine. At the end of the day, I don’t think he has that much of an understanding of small business. He’s clearly a large corporate deal-making person, and that’s really not who our members are. I would say at this point, I don’t think he has a close relationship with Main Street. I don’t really know, and I haven’t heard much about what his policies for small business would be. I don’t think that’s his comfort zone.
Q: What would a Clinton presidency look like for small business?
A: I don’t know either. I think the biggest worry [is it] would be heavy union, labor driven. That would clearly be a seemingly big priority for her. And that would be a big concern for our members.