Women’s group requests hearing on SBA program

The Women's Chamber of Commerce is pushing for a court hearing on the status of the Small Business Administration's women's procurement program, a week after the agency announced it was circulating its latest proposal to implement the program.

The Women's Chamber filed the request for a status hearing at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday. The group asked the court to address the "unconscionable delay" in implementing the program, mandated by Congress seven years ago to help agencies reach a goal of giving 5 percent of contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses.

The SBA announced last week that it had submitted its latest draft regulations on the program for interagency review. The regulatory changes are necessary before implementation can begin, agency officials said.

The legal document filed by the Women's Chamber, however, calls the rule an unnecessary reversal, saying the Office of Management and Budget was wrapping up final review on the previous rule for the program. The new rule has not yet been released to the public.

The court has addressed delays in the program previously. In November 2005, it found that the agency had "sabotaged, whether intentional[ly] or not, the implementation of a procurement program which would have, and will, likely benefit the businesses they represent." The court directed the agency to propose a deadline and follow a schedule to implement the program as soon as possible.

The SBA has not met its own deadlines, including a regulatory review deadline of November 2006. SBA Administrator Steve Preston testified before the House Small Business Committee on Oct. 4 that the agency was doing everything it could to enact the plan quickly.

"I agree that it is taking a long time, and it's taking too long, and it's taking longer certainly than we expected it would," Preston said at the hearing.

The SBA says it is required by law to submit the rule for interagency review before releasing it for public comment, but Margot Dorfman, chief executive officer at the Women's Chamber, said the review process was supposed to take place months ago. The organization repeatedly has accused the SBA of deliberately impeding the program through excessive regulatory review.

"The SBA has flouted Congress's directives and blatantly ignored self-imposed deadlines responsive to the court's order," the Women's Chamber charged. "The SBA's glacial progress -- if it can be considered progress at all -- is clearly violative of the [Administrative Procedures Act] prohibition against unreasonable delay."

An agency spokeswoman said the SBA does not object to the status hearing. The court has not yet responded to the hearing request.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, said she plans to look into legislation to compel the agency to act. The Women's Chamber is hoping that, meanwhile, the court will look into SBA's withdrawal of the earlier rule, evaluate the agency's progress and take any other necessary steps to move the program forward.

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