10 Questions With National Federation of Independent Business CEO Dan Danner

PHOTO: Dan Danner likes golf, office parties, and lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of President Obama?s health care law.
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Two-thirds of Americans oppose "Obamacare," according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll this month.

One of the groups that has challenged the health care law's constitutionality is the National Federation of Independent Business. The man behind that group is a Jimmy Buffett-loving electrical engineer and self-described creature of Washington named Dan Danner.

We sat down with Danner to ask him 10 questions. The whole interview was 45 minutes and 5,000 words long, so here's the condensed version.

First, tell us your story. Once upon a time ...

I'm an electrical engineer with an MBA. Fortunately, I determined early on I'd be a terrible engineer, and that was a good career move. I started my career at a steel company in Ohio in a marketing role, but under the heading of 'all politics is local,' I got involved in school board campaigns and city commission campaigns, on-the-ground politics and eventually got into lobbying, public affairs for this steel company in Ohio. So I spent a good deal of time in Columbus as a lobbyist and a slot opened here in the steel company's office. I was transferred from Ohio to Washington. I worked for them in a lobby shop here for a number of years, and then in the early 80s, it was not lost on anyone that the steel industry was not in a good place and was starting to shrink pretty dramatically. And although I was confident I wasn't about to be shrunk, I had an opportunity to work at the White House. I went to the White House in early '86 in the Reagan White House as a business liaison in the office of public policy. The secretary of commerce for most of Reagan was a guy named Mac Baldridge, from the West Coast, he was one of the original sort of Reagan kitchen cabinet. And about two years before the end of Reagan's second term, Mac Baldridge passed away. Fell off a horse. The incoming secretary of commerce was a guy named Bill Verity, who was the then-retired president, CEO and chair of the steel company I used to work for, called Armco Steel. Even though he ran this big steel company, I knew him and his wife and his kids, and so when he was announced as the secretary of commerce, he called me and asked me to join him. He had been in and out of Washington but had never worked in Washington, and he said: 'There are people I'm meeting with I don't know why I'm meeting with, friends who say they can't get through the gatekeepers to meet with me. This whole thing is a mess – would you just come over here and fix it and make it work? And whatever you need to do to do it, you got it.' So I spent two years as his chief of staff.

I stayed a little while when Bush won and Mosbacher was the incoming secretary. I was a little burned out. I spent 3-plus years at George Mason University working for the George Johnson, the president of George Mason. He was a wonderful visionary to build a university from an extension of UVA to what it is today, but pretty quickly I missed Washington, and one of the things – it's like being in Kansas. It's a little closer now, but then, one of the first things that happened was, I was going across campus to talk to some professors about some grant or something, and I came back to my office at six o'clock, and the building was locked. I was like, what? That's not what I was used to.

The whole pace — I love the pace of Washington. I love that things are always happening. So that convinced me early on that it was a nice place; it was a great challenge. I thought the White House was political until I went to a university. They make the politics we talk about here look small.

So I started with NFIB in '93, so, I love where I am. I love what I'm doing. I think I've got one of the greatest jobs in town because, you know, I love who we represent. And I do get a fair amount of opportunity to travel around, spend time with small business owners and hear their stories. I enjoy meeting them and talking with them and hearing their stories. It's what the country's all about. Take a risk, get rewarded, stick your neck out.

What's one of the most memorable businesses you've seen?

I visited a guy in Ohio — I mean, they're not all pretty. The renderings business. You take leftover parts of animals, you boil that stuff down, and I guess we went out because this was a guy I never met, just last year, and he made a sizable donation to our state PAC in Ohio, and so I said if I'm out there, I'd just really like to meet this guy. And I guess I was sort of anticipating – I didn't know a lot about the renderings business, if you had to wear gas masks or expected it to be very pretty, or you had to have high boots – his building, which is in northwestern Ohio in a tiny little town, was an entirely historic building that was renovated. It had the most gorgeous woodwork. That old red brick, it was a building that you could see in Williamsburg or something. It was spectacular. And I was, it just was a better example of, don't typecast. This guy was incredibly sophisticated, the building was wonderful, it was full of antiques and it was a nice head jerk – you know, don't typecast. It doesn't matter what the business is. All small business owners didn't all just get off the hay truck.

What are you looking forward to the most in the arguments that the Supreme Court will hear over the health care law?

I don't think the government's had a valid argument for this yet, so if the individual mandate on health care is constitutional, where is the line in terms of what the government can mandate you as an individual to do or to buy? Is there no line? The argument that the government makes is that health care's different. Our attorney argues, and I think very effectively, that he can make the case that there are four of five other areas that are in the national interest. If Congress thought at some point, the environment is so bad, everybody's dying, we really do need to totally get rid of gasoline-powered cars. We don't have enough money to subsidize everybody to buy electric cars, so we're going to mandate that the next car purchase you make has to be a Volt.

On the one hand you can say, "Well, that sounds unreasonable," but you know, here's a case where we are mandating that young people in particular make an economic decision that's not in their best interest. If you're 25 years old, there's no question that economically what's best is that you buy a high-deductible minimum policy that mainly provides a well visit or something a year, and you can probably do that for 50 bucks a month. Not that you buy an $8,000 all-inclusive policy. An all-inclusive policy that might include hair transplants, and you know you don't need that. But the whole law was based on making you, if you're 25, buy all this that you don't need because they want your money. They have to have your money to make the rest of it work, so you have to buy whatever, 10 times more than you need because they know you're not going to use it all so they can shift that money to pay for other people. So it will be interesting to see, what does the government say is the line if this is constitutional, or is there no line?

How do you think Mitt Romney has handled the criticism of the mandates he oversaw in his health plan in Massachusetts?

I don't think he's handled it as well as it could be handled. In my opinion, there's an enormously strong case to be made that Massachusetts is so different than the rest of the country that what works in Massachusetts is not a prescription for the rest of the country. I mean, Massachusetts is a rich state. Massachusetts has a comparatively enormously low level of uninsured compared to a lot of other states. So it's different, and without ever getting to the merits of what they ultimately passed in Massachusetts, I think he can easily and correctly come back and say that 'what we proposed in Massachusetts is not what I would propose for the whole nation, and here's why. Because Massachusetts is different.' I don't think he's been clear or consistent on his responses, sort of answers a little different each time he's asked. I think he needs to be clear, concise and consistent.

There has to be something you like in Obamacare. What would you want to stay?

We have long supported no previously existing conditions. We've long supported the ways to get at portability so if you lose a job – and ways to do that when those are exchanges, or we supported some sort of ways for small businesses to work together and get some of the same economies to scale, things that a large corporation has. We'd like more tax transparency. For a larger corporation, the cost of the health care they provide is tax deductible. For you as an individual, it's not. We think we need to address that. They talked a little bit about some of that, I guess, if you purchase in an exchange, so we have been credibly consistent for years and years and years that we needed health care reform because small businesses and individuals that are buying in a small group market in our opinion had the worst of the worst. They paid more; they got less.

You've got to stay well informed, so where do you get most of your news?

Probably read more. I don't watch a lot of cable shows. I mean I read – some of it I get hard copy, some of it, a lot of stuff's online. I always try to read a couple of newspapers. I read the Post 'cause it's the Post. I read the Wall Street — I read in the morning Politico, Roll Call, The Hill. We get summaries in the morning, Congress Daily, I read those. I get a lot of stuff from the Hill, you know, from leadership offices and stuff on the Hill. Real Clear Politics, if I'm looking at checking the primary results or poll results, or, not as often but occasionally just for the fun of it, all I'll take a shot of Drudge and see. I'm not a regular Drudge-ite. I don't watch a lot of shows the talking heads. Actually I find those sort of boring. Those are all about political posturing, and I don't think if you're watching the talking heads you're going to find much new in terms of substance. Sound bites of the day. That's not really what I'm the most interested in. I know pretty much who's arguing what and who's pointing the finger when, so I don't really watch it that much.

A lot of people these days are pretty down on Washington and say it's an awful place. Why are you here?

There still are a lot of great, great people here. I've been here 32 years. I have a lot of great friends here, people that I've worked with for a lot of years. Washington is a magnet for incredibly smart, passionate people. If you look at people that work on the Hill, I mean, they are incredibly smart people from the finest universities in the country and the world who are passionate about what they do. That's fun to be a part of, you know? And I care about our piece of that, however small or big that is, and I like to be in a part of whatever level, trying to make a difference for things that I believe in. It is different now. There's probably thousands now articles and books written about why Washington's so gridlocked, and there are a whole lot of reasons. It's everything from redistricting to instantaneous news to microtargeting — you know, you target left-handed people who care about one issue and nothing else, and I think all that's a shame. All of us pay the price for the inability to work together to find more good solutions. If you look at the Senate, there are not many Sam Nunns. It's hard to be in the middle of either party.

No more Olympia Snowes. She will be missed. I'm a Republican. That's probably not a secret. But I came here in 1979, and the steel company said, 'We'll pay for you to belong to one of these clubs, a place where you can go have lunch with somebody,' which you can't do now, I think that's a shame – that's another, I think it's horrible that you can't go out and have a cup of coffee with a staffer without worrying whether he or she is being bought for a cup of coffee, or the food in the Rayburn cafeteria, which isn't that good. So they told me I could belong to a club, and I looked at the Capitol Hill club and the Democrat club, the old Democrat club. So I joined it 'cos it was more fun. A nice little bar area, the popcorn machine, people used to sit around and chat. And frankly it didn't make a lot of difference. It's hard when you see the people like we did a lot over the years with blue dogs and, frankly, yellow dogs before they were blue dogs. And it's a shame that most of them, it's a hard place to be between redistricting from their own party, you know, I think it's a shame to see people like Dan Boren leave. He's a conservative Democrat, and, you know, that's hard to be. If you're in the northeast and you're a moderate Republican, that's hard to be because you get squeezed pretty hard both ways. I do think that's a shame. It's harder now. Hopefully lots of people won't give up.

Who is your favorite member of Congress, and your least favorite?

Well I'd be careful on the second one. That's one of the lessons I've learned in a long time. Careful what you wish for, and one of my philosophies over the years has been, don't burn any bridges, 'cause today's adversary could be tomorrow's friend, and I think that's how it should work. You and I could disagree on 80 percent of the things, but maybe there's 20, maybe there's something we could work on. Someone on the Democrat side that's not known to be enormously pro-business, clearly he's pro-labor, but who exemplifies this and is just a delightful guy, and that's Ron Wyden. I mean he is just the nicest guy who we've worked with him on some stuff, and we kind of know on the labor stuff, minimum wage and other things, where he's going to be. But there's always opportunities to work with him. He's just a delightful guy. To me that's sort of Washington as it should be. John Boehner's a good friend of mine. I grew up in the eighth district of Ohio. I knew John when he ran for the state legislature. I knew him when he first ran for Congress. People that were involved in his very first campaign. Some of them are people I went to high school with. That stuff about nine brothers and sisters over the restaurant is all true. And when you talk about kids and small business, if you ask him to give a talk somewhere and you say, 'Would you talk about kids and small business?', the odds are he won't get through it without tearing up, and that's real. I respect him for that.

Are you satisfied with the current field of Republican candidates, or is there someone out there who you wish would run for president?

I can make a choice given the current field. I think probably like a lot of people, if you backed us up 10 months and said, 'Were there other people you would've liked to see be in the race?', I'd say absolutely. I'm a great fan of Mitch Daniels. I understand and respect him for personal reasons because I think family comes first. But in terms of his budgetary background at a time that clearly one of the biggest challenges we have out there is our budgets and the deficit and entitlements, he not only brings a great knowledge of that and detailed knowledge of that, but he also has a fabulous track record in Indiana.

After a day of politicking and policy wonkerage, what's your favorite nonpolitical activity to clear your head?

I love the beach. We have a little condo over outside Bethany beach in Delaware, and when the weather's nice, even if it's for – leave late on Friday and come back Sunday night – it's sort of like, at the other side of the Bay Bridge, the world looks different. You know, it's peaceful – flip flops, T-shirt, bathing suit and a beach chair and a book, about 10 paces away from the waves rolling in. I find that enormously peaceful, and I really enjoy the beach and everything about it. I'm pretty sure I probably don't have at the beach a collared shirt. I don't have any hard-soled shoes. It's either Dockers or flip-flops, more often the flip flops. I do enjoy playing golf. Somewhat over there and somewhat when I'm here. But the beach is still the most relaxing. I got some Buffett T shirts – I'm a Buffett fan. We've gone here for six or seven years. We go, tailgate, and I have Margaritaville on my satellite radio, and when he's here we usually do a concert at the State Theatre. He's a lot of fun. Yeah, I'm a Buffett fan. I enjoy it.

Tell me about your lighter side – I hear you can be a prankster.

I'm a great fan of the Capitol Steps. We've actually taken our board to see them, 'cos I think it's great to lampoon everything that goes on in Washington. We like to celebrate. We celebrate birthdays. We're about to have our annual NFIB Masters putting contest. We'll have holes all around the hallways, sand traps and water traps. We bring in azaleas. We have prizes and a leader board. There's enough tension here, if you can't have fun — we have signs and we have 'ground under repair' where there's a small tear in the carpet. We've had more than one office over the years, when somebody's come back from testifying for the first time on the Hill or something, their office is full of balloons. They papered over his desk and everything. [At this point in the interview, Danner's public relations assistant told a story about a woman who worked near his office who had to have everything on her desk perfectly straight and at right angles at all times.] Everything was perfect, you just do one thing, go like that, and it's like, would she find it? When you think, all these things in the desk, how would you know if one thing – you'd never look for it – if this was like this and you just went like that would she notice it? And she would. I'd just sort of casually walk by later. It's like, golly. It's a lot of fun.

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