Who’s Really Behind the “Voice of Small Business?”

small biz calculator*This article was originally published in The Hill *

How much does it cost to rebrand a fee levied on health insurers as a “HIT on small business”?

Well, $1.593 million, according to this exposé in the New York Times a few days ago.

A little background: a provision of the Affordable Care Act levies a fee on health insurance companies.  This fee helps to fund the law’s sliding scale premium assistance for individuals, as well as tax credits for small businesses to make health insurance more affordable. It’s expected to cost the insurance industry $100 billion over the first decade.

The New York Times investigation reveals that in 2012, the insurance industry trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) funneled $1.593 million to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) – the self-proclaimed “Voice of Small Business” – doubling down on an $850,000 dark money contribution the year before.

NFIB used the money to finance its “Stop the HIT” advocacy campaign, designed to rebrand the insurer fee as a “HIT on small business” and stop it from taking effect.  “H.I.T.” stands for “Health Insurance Tax.” The Times’ Eric Lipton writes:

“The largely hidden role of the for-profit health insurers highlights the increasingly confusing world of campaign finance, as nonprofit groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and its Voice of Free Enterprise program can keep their donor lists secret and then present their carefully fashioned message, financed in large part by big business, as if it is coming from, perhaps, a more sympathetic voice.”

Kipp Maloney, executive director of NFIB’s Voice of Free Enterprise, acted incredulous when presented the evidence.  “I don’t know how we could be confused with an organization fronting for some other groups,” he told the Times.

In fact, NFIB goes to great lengths to distance itself from big business in its branding, even if big business is footing a large share of the bill.  In the About Us page on its website, NFIB states that it is “NOT a voice for Big Business” and asserts that “to prevent un-due influence by any one member or group, NFIB dues are capped at a maximum of $10,000.”

Perhaps girding against at least the appearance of undue influence is why in 2012 NFIB created “The Voice of Free Enterprise,” a new 501(c)(4) established for the express purpose of taking money from individuals and groups who are not small business owners.

The $1.593 million secret donation made AHIP the biggest single contributor to NFIB’s Voice of Free Enterprise program in its founding year, representing nearly a third of the program budget, and the number two contributor to NFIB’s family of controlled entities in 2012 – second only to the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners, which gave $2.5 million.

NFIB is rapidly rolling out its endorsements this political season, in which it highlights the “distinctions separating small business from big business.”

Here’s Distinction Number 5: “The health-care law adds a new tax that targets small business.” That’s NFIB carrying water for AHIP again, pushing the insurance industry’s agenda from that “more sympathetic” small business voice, this time in the electoral arena.

Stealing the name of small business to support a big business agenda?  Let’s call that what it is: Political Identity Theft – P.I.T.

It’s time to stop throwing small business in the P.I.T.

Hall is the executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society, a national organizing and policy network that advances campaigns for quality, affordable healthcare, economic fairness, and racial equity.