A package of six bills designed to steer more federal contract opportunities toward small businesses cleared the House Small Business Committee on Wednesday, amid bipartisan frustration at the Obama administration’s approach to helping what all parties see as a key sector for creating jobs.
The marked-up bills would raise the percentage of federal contracts that should go to small businesses, elevate agency Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization offices, crack down on large firms hiding behind small business fronts to win contracts, and require agencies that insource previously contracted work to publish their rationale online and give contractors more of an opportunity to protest.
Other bills would clarify the eligibility of small businesses for multiple award contracts, bring in small businesses at an earlier stage of the bidding process, give priority to small firms in areas with high unemployment, open up more General Services Administration contracts for commercial purchases to small businesses, and provide more training for Small Business Administration-based procurement center representatives.
Noting that the government spends $500 billion annually in contracting, committee Chairman Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., said, “improving small business opportunities is a triple play -- small businesses win more contracts; workers win as the small businesses create jobs; and taxpayers win because small businesses bring competition, innovation and lower prices to save the government money.”
Perhaps the most far-reaching bill is the chairman’s own (H.R. 3850), the Government Efficiency Through Small Business Contracting Act, which would raise the governmentwide small business contracting goal from 23 percent to 25 percent. Graves estimated it would provide $11 billion in new work for small business. It also would raise the current goal of giving 35.9 percent of subcontracting to small businesses to 40 percent. The other bills are the Small Business Advocate Act (H.R. 3851), Subcontracting Transparency and Reliability Act (H.R. 3893), Small Business Opportunity Act (H.R. 3980), Early Stage Small Business Contracting Act (H.R. 4121) and Small Business Procurement Improvement Act (H.R. 4118).
Though most of the markup action appeared bipartisan, some Democrats were uneasy with the insourcing transparency requirement. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., the panel’s ranking member, said it might encourage costly litigation and clog the Government Accountability Office with protests instead of creating jobs. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said businesses that lose contracts already have resources to challenge the decisions and noted insourcing of inherently governmental activities has been codified twice in Defense authorization acts.
There also was disagreement over set-asides for economically and socially disadvantaged businesses. An amendment Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., offered would have raised the set-aside from 5 percent of the total value of a prime contract to 7.5 percent. It was withdrawn pending further negotiations before floor action.
“I’ve tried not to favor one group of small businesses over another -- I don’t want to pick winners and losers, I want to help all small businesses compete,” Graves said. “Right now, we have one small business goal, and four subcategory goals -- women, service-disabled veterans, [Historically Underutilized Business Zone] firms and small disadvantaged businesses. Each of the subcategories of small businesses can compete for small business contracts, so they all win when we increase the overall small business goal,” he added. “However, when we increase the small disadvantaged business goal, only about 9,200 firms benefit, instead of the 350,000 small businesses currently seeking to do business with the government.”
The hearing began with approval of the committee’s comments on President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request for SBA. No one from the administration appeared to discuss it. Members of both parties complained the budget avoids tough choices, fails to cut duplicative programs and funds pilot projects not authorized by Congress.
A spokeswoman said SBA worked hard with the committee to lock down a hearing date on short notice, but could not make it on the one day that worked for the panel. Agency officials have, however, briefed congressional staff members and made an effort to answer all their questions about the fiscal 2013 budget, she said.
SBA declined to comment on the contractor legislation. The committee is scheduled to consider more contracting bills in the coming weeks.
Before the markup, the Professional Services Council, a contractors trade group, sent a letter backing most of the bills, but opposing some provisions. “We’re particularly pleased to see legislation that would protect small businesses from improper insourcing activities, ensure that no small business is deemed ineligible for small business programs because of SBA's improper approach to calculating industry category size standards, and elevate the role of small business advocates in the contracting process,” President and Chief Executive Officer Stan Soloway said.
But he added, “Congress should not raise the small business prime contracting or subcontracting goals until it has accurate data about total small business participation in the federal marketplace at both the prime and subcontract levels.”