Like many Americans around the country, members of the National Minority Business Council Inc. and I have been closely monitoring the budget negotiations in Washington, D.C., with less-than-fond memories of the 1995 shutdown of the federal government. Wednesday night’s eleventh-hour budget talks at the White House reportedly made some progress. But as one national news organization reported, despite the warm spring Washington night, the air between Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, after the talks was decidedly “frosty.” Or was that actually smoke still billowing from the heated discussions over which President Obama and Vice President Biden presided?
No doubt, these strange bedfellows have been causing sleepless nights for a wide range of Americans–from the projected 800,000 “non-essential” federal employees, to veterans and active members of the armed forces who live from paycheck to paycheck, to small business owners who count on revenue from government contracts to keep their doors open, pay their employees and provide healthcare benefits heavily touted by the Obama administration as essential to healthcare reform and the country’s overall economic recovery.
These same small businesses have been credited by this and previous administrations as the backbone of the nation’s economy. I urge President Obama, Sen. Reid and Speaker Boehner not to put undue stress on our spines. Reach a compromise to keep our country moving forward in the right direction!
As the president and CEO of the NMBC, as well as the husband of a now-retired federal government employee furloughed during the 1995 shutdown and father of a then school-age son who is now serving in Iraq, I have vivid memories of those 21 days over the 1995-96 Christmas holidays in which Scrooge, not Santa, figured more prominently in the lives of millions of Americans. If you work for the same organization as long as I have done, it’s only natural that you are going to see the same or similar issues re-surface.
The 350 current members of NMBC—the majority of who are people of color, women, or veterans who have struck out on their own as entrepreneurs after serving our country honorably—are understandably fearful of the impact of a shutdown. One Washington analyst likened a potential shutdown of less than a week to having no greater impact than a snowstorm. Longer than that, it might be likened to a blizzard.
But there’s a difference between an annoying but temporary weather pattern and a recurring pattern of bad behavior on Capitol Hill. Snow eventually stops falling and begins to melt. Storms often energize individuals, business owners and local municipalities to fight back with an assault of human and mechanized snow removal power. As bleak as a winter storm may be, hope is in sight as we mark off the calendar days towards the first hour of spring.
Spring officially arrived more than two weeks ago, but we face a storm that will impact communities from Hawaii to Maine and Alaska to Texas. Newspapers around the country have inventoried which national parks, monuments and important but “non-essential” tourist attractions will either close or severely curtail their services and accessibility.
So what if tourists can’t visit the Statue of Liberty on their spring vacation to New York City? Too bad; they can still get a good view of it from Manhattan’s coastline. That is, of course, if the tourists still come. And if they don’t, that, too, is bad—very bad—for the hospitality industry, from the major airlines and small bed-and-breakfast establishments to the many other related industries that are contracted to provide services to the public and even government.
I can assure our elected officials that the ability to compromise is as much a valued and respected sign of leadership as is digging in your heels to pacify a small but vocal constituency. If no compromise is reached and the government shuts down, “non-essential” government employees and all of the country’s small-business owners will only temporarily lose paychecks and revenue streams. However, come November of this year and next, they will still have memories of the pain of a 2011 government closure and they will still have their right to vote.
John F. Robinson is the president and CEO of the National Minority Business Council, Inc.