WASHINGTON — A year ago, when San Antonio truck parts dealer Mike Manuppelli went calling on Congress, the best he could manage was some meetings with a couple of legislative aides who only half-listened to what he said.
But when he returned to Washington a few days ago, he got the personal attention of two Texas senators and three representatives.
Manuppelli is still the same fellow who owns Automotive Truck Parts Co. in San Antonio and belongs to Texas Small Business United, a grass-roots lobbying group.
What's different is that small business has learned how to flex its political muscle, and Congress has gotten the message. In fact, the red carpet has been out all this week for small-business owners and their families being honored during the Small Business Administration's Small Business Week.
Business owners from 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico descended on the city for a frenzy of awards ceremonies, speeches and events.
"There is a tremendous difference just in a 12-month period," said Manuppelli. "The people we visited with this time were not only much more receptive, but they really wanted to know the pulse of the small-business owners."
And, on Monday, while scores of small-business owners swarmed in and out of offices on Capitol Hill, President Bush's chief of staff, John H. Sununu, personally assured representatives of several business groups that the President would veto any bill requiring businesses to provide unpaid maternity or family leaves.
Virtually every small-business organization has been loudly opposing mandated leave, so Bush's promise was the latest victory for their lobbying efforts.
The leaders of the congressional small business committees say the winds have shifted in favor of the little guy since last fall's repeal of Section 89, a tax law that outraged the small-business community.
For more than a year, business owners protested against Section 89, a regulation riddled with eye-crossing formulas that would have required business owners to provide the same kinds of benefits to entry level employees as they provided executives.
"I think small-business organizations feel prouder of themselves now and are aware that they have more clout," said Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), who serves as chairman of the Committee on Small Business. "I do think there is strength in numbers."
In recent months, small-business groups have rallied to oppose mandated health care, portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and an inheritance tax law that imposes a burden on family-owned firms trying to pass the company along to the next generation.
Legislators and Bush are seeking out small-business support for their favorite issues by being more accessible, according to veteran small-business advocates.
"I've seen an incredible recognition of small business on the Hill," said Christine Russell, chief House lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Russell, who until recently served as director of the chamber's Small Business Center, said legislators are listening more closely to small-business owners because their companies are the ones creating most of America's new jobs.
"It's satisfying to have people calling us rather than us going to camp out on their doorsteps," said John Satagaj, president of the Small Business Legislative Council, which represents 103 trade associations.
Mel Boldt, chairman and chief executive of BMI Inc., a Palatine, Ill., maker of clips and clamps, said he has been lobbying in Washington since 1980.
"In 1980, it was 'what is small business and why is it different from big business?' " said Boldt, who attended a recent joint meeting of National Small Business United and the National Assn. of Women Business Owners in Washington. "Now they realize there is a position between the unions and big business."
Art Sweet, president of Certified Business Funding, a North Hollywood small-business lender, agreed that legislators are taking what he has to say more seriously than in the past.
"They really want to find out what's right for small business," said Sweet. "I do feel we are getting our message across."
The small-business owners also feel a strong comradeship with Bush.
Karl Krieger, president of the 50,000 member National Small Business United, called Bush "a small-business President" who is "right with us on 90% of the issues."
Bush, who owned his own small oil drilling company in Texas feels, a kinship with the small-business community, according to Jeff Vogt, a business liaison for the White House. Bush also hopes his small-business friends will get behind his move to reduce the capital gains tax and reduce the budget deficit without raising taxes.
"The President feels they will roll up their sleeves and get to work for him on Capitol Hill," said Vogt.