Running a growing business is never a simple proposition, and the ever-changing world of laws, regulations and requirements handed down from the federal government doesnt always help.
Talk on the Hill has again begun to gravitate toward tax cuts. Specific issues expected to become future legislation include a repeal of the estate tax and a bill sponsored by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) to reduce the capital gains tax from 20 percent to 15 percent. The latter should be on the floor by mid-July. Still, the mood in Washington remains contradictory.
Favorable but uneducated, is the way the general climate is described by Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business Survival Committee. You do have a lot of good rhetoric coming from the Hill about removing the obstacles to competitiveness and survivaland there has been incremental movement on legislation that has been helpful. But then there are these big sweeping pieces of legislation where the fallout eradicates whatever gains were there from that earlier legislation. Its like one big step forward and then a couple of steps backward.
With that in mind, here is a brief overview of recent legislation that should be of interest to employers and employees alike.
Product Liability Reform Act of 1998 (S.648 - Sen. Gorton, R-WA) - An ambitious bill establishing the following potential reforms: a uniform standard of clear and convincing evidence in regard to punitive damages creates an 18-year limit from the date of purchase for workplace durable goods after which the manufacturer can not be sued; a provision for reduction of claimant awards for misuse or alteration; and a complete defense for manufacturers if the claimant is shown to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs and more than 50 percent responsible for the harm. The bill is scheduled to come to the floor for debate in July and looks favorable for passage.
Paycheck Protection Act (S.1663 - Sen. Lott, R-MS, H.2608 - Rep. Schaffer, R-CO) - Essentially an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act, both bills target the notion of dues, fees or payments from employees or stockholders being used for political activities without prior written consent of the individual. Both bills mention banks and corporations, but primarily are aimed at unions, based on the well-known perception that dues are often used for political purposes not in line with the wishes of the rank and file. The bills would forbid that practice. The bills came to a vote on the floor of both houses and failed in each one. Expect the issue to be brought up again, though not before the November elections.
Truth In Employment Act of 1997 (HR.758 - Rep. Fawell, R-IL, S.328 - Sen. Hutchinson, R-AR) - Both bills intend to amend the National Labor Relations Act to prevent requiring employers to employ persons with ulterior motives other than primary employment, or so-called salting. The bills are part of a four-pronged reform (see next). The House version passed in a nasty labor battle, 202 to 200, however the Senate version is still being lobbied and has not yet come to a vote.
Fairness for Small Business and Employees Act of 1998 (HR.3246 - Rep. Goodling R-PA, S.2085 - Sen. Hutchinson, R-AR) - The key provision here for small business regards litigation with the NLRB. This bill requires that the NLRB must reimburse attorney and administrative costs if the prevailing parties are employers or labor organizations with fewer than 100 employees and a net worth of no more than $1.4 million. It is thought that this will lead to more judicious NLRB filings. The House version passed in the aforementioned four-part action. The Senate version has been held at the desk but will likely be added as an amendment to another bill sometime this session.
OSHA Reform Act of 1997 (HR.1162 - Rep. Hefley, R-CO) - Designed to overhaul much of the current OSHA mission by requiring OSHA to, among other things: conduct continuing economic analysis of costs of each standard; establish small business assistance and training programs to create cooperative workplace safety and to use 25 percent of its appropriations for such; and to repeal provisions for current methods of inspection, recordkeeping, review, enforcement and penalties. Both houses have passed a minor version of the bill that specifically states that if a small business fixes its OSHA violation it will not be subject to punitive actions. The White House has expressed no interest in opposing this adjustment to OSHA policy.
In addition to this legislation, small business lobbies are watching a wide range of possible amendments that could be attached to other bills and piggyback their way into law. Among those most often cited as a threat to small business are two potential changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. One bill seeks to lower the threshold of the current act so it applies to private sector employers with more than 25 employees as opposed to the current 50 employees (S.183 IS - Sen. Dodd, D-CT), while a second bill (S.280 - Sen. Murray, D-WA) seeks to include up to 24 hours of education or family literacy training to the areas of leave covered by the act.
Also of concern is the repeated interest in raising the minimum wage championed by Sen. Kennedy (D-MA) and the so-called Blacklisting Regulations supported by Vice President Gore, which seek to make companies without a pristine labor law record ineligible to receive federal contracts. The regulations have been delayed for nearly 18 months due to political lobbying both for and against them.