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Falling Short on Government's Promises to Disabled Vets

Agencies are failing to achieve contracting goals to support small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans.

Earlier this month, we reflected on the memory and legacy of Senator Bob Dole, a disabled veteran and author of the Americans with Disabilities Act who gave more to this nation as a young man in uniform than most do in a lifetime, and then continued to do so for the rest of his life. In a country with such deep partisan divides, one thing I heard throughout my time in Washington, from members of both parties, was that the United States had a responsibility to take care of disabled veterans and provide them with support and opportunities. They are our nation’s heroes who sacrificed more than most can imagine when their country called.

Policymakers recognized this value and sacrifice when they established federal contracting set aside goals to support small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. These laws are meant to ensure that when taxpayer dollars are spent by federal agencies, those contracts leverage veterans’ skill sets and entrepreneurialism. Put simply, vets know what it takes to get a complex and multifaceted job done right in the most difficult of circumstances. They’ve paid the price for this knowledge at the expense of their health, and the least the government can do is offer them opportunities to put it to use for the public.

Unfortunately, many federal agencies continue to fall far short of the contracting goals that Congress put in place. When it comes to disabled veterans, our government is failing to meet its most basic legal obligations, especially within agencies focused on international development and diplomacy.

This is one policy issue where our leaders should easily be able to work together. We must live up to our commitments to disabled veterans and leverage their experience to benefit the public and serve the mission of agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development. Importantly for our government mired in partisan gridlock, it will not require a major lift to make a major difference.

According to the Small Business Administration, which is responsible for collecting and publicizing data from federal agencies about their progress towards meeting their contract set aside goals, USAID is falling far short. In 2020 only 0.5% of USAID contracts were obligated to service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses—83% below the goal. Sadly, this failing grade is not an anomaly, but instead a high-water mark for the last few years.

Last summer, President Biden called for a 5% increase in the allocation of federal contracting dollars for disadvantaged businesses like those owned by service-disabled veterans. The President’s commitment to increasing opportunities for disadvantaged small businesses was echoed by USAID Administrator Samantha Power the following week when she stated that she recognizes that, historically, the majority of USAID contracts went to the same group of large contractors. This lack of diversity in contracting has negatively impacted the agency as well as America’s veterans. According to Power, failure to work with veteran small businesses “holds back healthy competition, limits … exposure to new approaches, robs small businesses of the chance to gain valuable experience, and doesn’t make the best possible use of valuable taxpayer dollars.” Power committed the agency not just to meeting its goals for small, veteran owned companies, but to “moving beyond these goals to … tap into insights that benefit the people we serve.”

However, for an issue that is both bureaucratic and cultural, acknowledging the problem is only the first step—there must be follow through on this commitment. That requires identifying opportunities where service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses can play a role, awarding them contracts, and obligating dollars to those contracts. This process is administrative; it requires focus from the agency. The businesses that can fill the needs of the agency are out there, they just need support from USAID to realize the opportunities created for them by law.

To achieve the program’s goals, Congress and the Biden administration must communicate their commitment to increasing opportunities for these businesses down to the contracting officer level. Additionally, USAID leadership should engage with service-disabled, veteran-owned businesses to solicit feedback about how they can improve opportunities for and benefit from the value veterans bring to the table. And lawmakers have an important oversight role to hold the agencies accountable. It should be an easy bipartisan win for veterans.

With the right commitment and approach, USAID and other agencies will find that the 3% annual target is easily met. In meeting that goal, they’ll unlock tremendous value for those they serve, as well as for veterans.

Evan Bayh served as the governor of Indiana from 1989 to 1997 and as U.S. Senator from 1999 to 2011; he was a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.