My wife and I opened our architectural woodworking business 31 years ago and for the last 25 or so have provided health insurance to our employees. We built our business from the two of us working side by side in a tiny shop to a workforce of 11 operating out of 12,000 square feet of well equipped loft space.
We started out with Jimmy Carter's inflation followed by Ronald Reagan's recession. All the economic and political ups and downs that followed gave us more than one look into the abyss of financial failure -- but never as frightening or deep as what we fear today. Experience has taught me this much: panic and recriminations don't help in times like these. Tenacity, more than anything else, has allowed us to survive.
The possibility of national health care reform offers me a ray of hope. It will help small businesses like ours continue to do right by our employees and at the same time not be in a competitive disadvantage with employers whose bottom line is improved by their unwillingness to offer coverage.
So eighteen months ago I was very happy to receive a call from an outfit I'd never heard of, the Main Street Alliance. For the first time in 30 years I heard the right questions asked by an organization representing small business. They talked about how we could provide health care -- not how we could avoid it. I signed up and since then, along with other like-minded "Main Street" business owners across the country, I have petitioned my government, talked to and written to my representatives in Washington and helped make our case in the media for health care reform.
Business owners I know had hoped for reforms that would include strong shared responsibility measures. They would have required employers who have the means to provide health insurance or pay stiff penalties, leveling the competitive playing field. We had hoped for a national insurance exchange to assure greater affordability for some, while setting a benchmark establishing minimum health insurance standards for all. We advocated for a strong public option that would provide real competition in insurance markets and put a brake on skyrocketing premiums.
These were common sense, practical ideas based on established American traditions of justice and fair play. These were the Main Street Alliance's principles of real reform and though they all made it into the bill passed by the House, many will be compromised in what is finally enacted.
Health care reform could have been a tonic for threatened small business owners like me. Instead, anger and frustration are almost certain to increase as the special interest compromises forced on the final legislation become reality. Still, enough progress remains to take the next step. Health care reform is too important.
With the House and Senate poised to take their final votes on health care reform, "populist" ideologues are preparing their next attack. Claiming to represent "Main Street"--- their euphemism for disenfranchised, angry middle class workers desperate for answers---- they will condemn Congress for demanding too much of "Main Street" while cozying up to Wall Street. They will throw incendiary buzz words like "taxes" and "mandates," verbal hand grenades intended to incite outrage and recrimination.
It's important to point out they don't speak for the small business owners across the country I have come to know, who live and work on real Main Streets. Lost in their disingenuous rhetoric is an important achievement worthy of broad support: expanded access to affordable health care. Yes, compromises have reduced the number that could have been included, but that said, having tens of millions more Americans covered will improve care and lower costs in the long run.
My first heavy involvement in public policy has been discouraging in some ways. I'd hoped for a civil exchange of ideas and the bipartisanship that can produce quality sustainable policies. Given the nature of the frightening problems we face outside of health care, what took place instead has been an unacceptable breakdown. Those in positions of power more interested in ideology than the wellbeing of average Americans should not be forgiven for their actions.
Now my colleagues in the small business community need to figure out how to make a health care reform sow's ear into a purse; not silk - something useable will do. Plenty of issues will remain unresolved, including tort reform, further cost containment and continued expansion of affordable access. To meet these remaining challenges real people on real Main Streets will need to find new reserves of patience. We can't afford to give in to cynicism; we have to remain involved to keep our place at the table.
Angry might feel better. But if you run your own business you know the work remains unfinished long after anger-induced adrenaline has worn off. This health reform legislation represents the first leg of a long and difficult trek. We on Main Street will have to pace ourselves to complete the journey.