Mr. Ribble’s take on D.C.

Terrence Wall, a well-known developer for Dane County and beyond, writes from a businessman’s perspective. Often, he writes about the intersection of politics and business for IB, and how pending mandates or legislation affect the bottom line. However, his topics vary.

Americans like to complain about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., but few of us have put it all on the line to actually do something about it. Well, business owner and roofing contractor Reid Ribble of Green Bay did just that when he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives last year, and won.

So what’s it like for a private businessman to go to Washington? Let’s find out.

Rep. Ribble was just like many of us, a private-sector employee who worked his way up to become owner of a roofing company and former president of the National Roofing Contractors Association. (Talk about a difficult job – try brushing hot tar on a black roof during the heat of the summer!) After becoming frustrated with the machinations of Washington, he took on the incumbent Democrat along with seven Republican primary challengers to win the election.

As a result of winning, Ribble had to sell his business during the downturn (so much for the Founding Fathers’ idea of the citizen legislator who goes to Washington to help out part time). Between the job and continuous fundraising, today’s politicians are forced to work grueling schedules, sucking them into a cycle of dependency. Maintaining your financial independence with an outside income is almost impossible.

Next, Ribble had to find housing in Washington (on top of continuing to carry his home mortgage in Wisconsin), and keep his family and wife happy through the whole process. And there is little downtime for a new representative to take a vacation. A typical day starts at 6:30 a.m. and goes until midnight, six or seven days a week.

And what’s even more difficult for those of us in the private sector to understand is the new, never-ending campaign cycle. Even though he has been in office only 10 months, Ribble is already conducting fundraisers for the 2012 election season because the incumbent he beat, the well-heeled Dr. Steve Kagen, is rumored to be interested in recapturing his old seat.

Unfortunately, when I asked Rep. Ribble what it’s like in Washington compared to the public’s impression, he said it’s much worse. He said take what you know about all the problems in Washington and multiply it by 10.

Ribble also says that he has found the government sector far less efficient and incredibly wasteful. He sees more and more resources being poured in to solve problems that never get solved. As an outsider, he found the layers of duplication to be extreme and the cost of overhead out of sight.

In the private sector, competition roots out the inefficient players, whereas the government is a monopoly and doesn’t have to change.

Finally, business owners are rare in Congress. Given the number of attorneys and career politicians in Congress, we should not be surprised that Washington has had a poor track record of trying to manage the economy, which it shouldn’t do. Many of Ribble’s congressional colleagues have never even worked outside of government. Ribble says it’s rare to find others who have actually employed people, and most have little real-world experience in what businesses face day-to-day.

They wonder why banks aren’t lending; they have no idea why businesses will sit on capital, provided they have it, and not hire; and they have neither connected the dots between excessive regulation and job loss, nor do they recognize the punitive nature of a complex, 10,000-page IRS tax code. It’s no wonder the economy suffers and employment lags.

As Ribble points out, all of these problems can be fixed, but solving them will require a change in mindset from one where government is the solution to our problems to one that says government should get smaller, government does not have all the answers, and government cannot solve all our problems. We need to do that, just like our parents’ generation did.

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