House leads push to strengthen small business contracting

The House passed legislation Tuesday to improve contracting opportunities for small businesses, as part of a larger movement to implement a long-standing women's procurement program and update programs for other small businesses.

The Small Business Contracting Program Improvements Act (H.R. 3867) aims to beef up existing programs which, according to Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, have fallen short of their potential "due to legislative neglect, underfunding and mismanagement by several agencies." The House approved the bill by a vote of 334-80.

The measure would update economic criteria such as net worth limits for the 8(a) program, which assists businesses owned by socially or economically disadvantaged individuals, for the first time in almost 20 years. It also would strengthen requirements for programs that assist service disabled veteran-owned businesses and firms operating in historically underutilized business zones.

Senate Small Business Committee spokeswoman Kathryn Seck said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the committee, is working on a contracting bill that could be introduced as early as this week. If it passes the Senate, differences between the two chambers' bills would be worked out in conference.

One of the plans addressed in the House legislation -- the women's procurement program -- has come under particular scrutiny in recent weeks. Mandated by Congress seven years ago to help agencies award 5 percent of contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses, it has not been fully implemented. In early October, the Small Business Administration issued a new set of regulations on the program for agency review, an action that advocates and some lawmakers considered a means of stalling.

The House bill reiterates when agencies may restrict competition to women-owned small businesses and would mandate that the SBA identify industries in which women-owned small businesses are underrepresented in federal contracting. Velázquez said Tuesday that the legislation would "immediately implement the women's procurement program that has languished in the current administration's endless delays."

It is unclear what kind of effect this latest attempt to speed up the program will have. SBA Administrator Steve Preston has repeatedly testified that the agency is doing its best to implement the program and that the latest regulatory review process is a necessary step. Women's advocates, however, strongly disagree, saying the agency's reluctance to implement the program is costing women-owned businesses billions of dollars every year.

Pressure to speed up the program has come from both chambers of Congress. Kerry and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, sent a letter to Preston on Oct. 17 demanding the administrator provide the Senate Small Business Committee with a timeline for implementation. Seck said Kerry's upcoming contracting bill will also address the women's program.

"After seven years of delays, I am tired of listening to excuses," Kerry said in a joint statement with Snowe. "Senator Snowe and I want to see a timeline for implementing this program now so that women small business owners aren't denied another $6 billion in contracts." Snowe said the owners "have waited long enough, and I call on the SBA to set this program in motion as expeditiously as possible."

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently accepted a request by the Women's Chamber of Commerce for a status hearing on the program.

"We hope the judge will put an end to the SBA's foot-dragging," said Margot Dorfman, chief executive officer of the Women's Chamber. The status hearing will take place Nov. 7.

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