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Main Street Frustrated By Washington's 'Total Absurdity'

Local chamber of commerce leaders are frustrated with D.C. and fear that Main Streets like this one in Catskill, N.Y., will suffer economic fallout from the unending bickering.
Mike Groll
Local chamber of commerce leaders are frustrated with D.C. and fear that Main Streets like this one in Catskill, N.Y., will suffer economic fallout from the unending bickering.

Steve Stevens wants politicians in Washington to know that the budget stalemate is having real consequences back home.

"There comes a point where they've got to know about the pain in their district," says Stevens, who is president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "We've got to put a real face on it."

That kind of argument isn't having much effect, at least not in his own backyard. The local congressman, Rep. Thomas Massie, is a freshman Republican who has remained an adamant supporter of his party's shutdown strategy.

A similar dynamic exists in many parts of the country. In bright red districts represented by fiscal conservatives who don't want to budge in battling President Obama's Affordable Care Act, local business leaders are increasingly upset about the economic fallout from the unending bickering in Washington.

At the national level, major business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Foundation, have all called on House Republicans to bring the shutdown to an end.

But Main Street isn't exactly up in arms and local chambers of commerce aren't quite willing to call for their congressmen's head — or even lead organized efforts to demand a deal.

"Quite frankly, I think that most people are disgusted with partisan politics and have stopped listening," says Charlotte Keim, president of the chamber in Marietta, Ohio. "Washington, D.C., is just so far removed from small-town America," she says. "It's difficult to have an impact over there until we can all band together more."

Frustration Factor

Stevens' office sits across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, where an IRS facility — the one that became infamous for singling out Tea Party groups for scrutiny — normally employs 4,000 workers.

For the chamber, the main concern is that most of them are out of work and not spending money. "Facilities that cater to them can never get that business back, despite the fact that those workers might get back pay," Stevens says.

Many business owners are worried less about the relatively minor effects they may already be feeling than the threat to consumer confidence posed by the possibility of a federal debt default, which would increase interest rates and cause financial markets to tumble.

"Many of them live for the fourth quarter," says Peter Turok, president of the chamber of commerce in Anoka, Minn. "This is a critical quarter for retail and you do not need the public worrying about this as we head into that all-important holiday shopping season. To have this hanging over the head of the potential customers is just ludicrous."

Turok says he can't enter a meeting with local business owners without hearing complaints about "the total absurdity" of what's going on in Washington. "I think everybody's in shock that it's gone on this long," he says. "The boys and girls in Washington have pulled their toys out of the sandbox and they're going to pout a little bit, but it's still going on."

Still, Turok says he hasn't heard of many people in his area picking up the phone and complaining to their representatives and senators, or the White House, for that matter.

Lingering Side Effects

Aside from the impact on consumer confidence and the drop in direct spending, businesses around the country are feeling the impact of the government shutdown in a variety of ways that unnerve local chambers of commerce.

The Small Business Administration is not making loans and a number of economic development centers that rely on federal funds have also temporarily closed shop.

The Commerce Department runs an international trade office that usually offers weekly advice sessions at the Houston West Chamber of Commerce. That office is currently closed for the duration.

"We have companies that schedule appointments with them and it's just shut down," says Jeannie Bollinger, president of the Houston West Chamber. "If they've got import-export issues, there's no one to talk to."

Bollinger says the shutdown has generated plenty of talk among her members — "it is partisan politics and everybody has an opinion," she says — but not much by way of protest or attempts at direct contact with politicians or their staffs.

Keim, who runs the chamber in Marietta, Ohio, says too few local businesses have felt a direct pinch from the shutdown to protest. But that may change.

"If we talk in a week or 10 days, there will be much more to say about it," Keim says. "When the pain comes, we'll all be screaming."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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