JOYCE M. ROSENBERG
WASHINGTON (AP) — It sounds like a gold mine for small businesses: The more than half a trillion dollars that the federal government pays companies each year for all kinds of equipment and services. But winning a contract with the government can be hard, if not impossible, for a small business.
Contracting has been a priority for the House Small Business Committee this year. The committee, led by chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., has recently approved eight bills that are aimed at making it easier for small businesses to win contracts with the agencies throughout the federal government. Several of the bills address what's known as bundling, the process in which a number of small contracts are combined into one that is awarded to a large company. That company is supposed to subcontract to smaller companies. But critics say small businesses don't get as many contracts as they should due to burdensome paperwork, favoritism and fraud.
Another bill would raise the percentage of government contracts that small businesses must get to 25 percent from 23 percent. The Office of Management and Budget says the government spent approximately $535 billion on contracts in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30.
Graves is a six-term congressman who grew up on a family farm in northwest Missouri. He got small business experience operating the farm before running for the Missouri Legislature in 1992. Graves says small businesses are holding back on expanding and adding jobs because they're uncertain about what their taxes will be in the next few years. Also, it's unclear what regulations are likely to come out of government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor.
Graves talked with The Associated Press recently about small business issues including contracting, and about his own experiences as a small business owner.
Q. If a small business owner were to ask you, what can you do to help me, what would you say?
A. Directly, what we're trying to do is to help small businesses be able to access those government contracts. Right now, it can be tough, particularly when it comes to contract bundling. The federal government is notorious for wanting to do as little as work as possible. So they bundle up a lot of these contracts into as big a contract as they can get. And a lot of small businesses just simply can't compete and can't pursue that and it just really becomes a large business thing.
Indirectly, on the other hand, we're doing everything we can do to create an environment which is conducive to small business. And that is, those things that small businesses are worried about, the uncertainty of some of these things, so they're not expanding, they're not moving forward (because of) things like tax reform, regulatory reform, the health care debate and the costs associated with it, energy and the costs associated with it. And they're holding back. And so indirectly, we're looking into a lot of those things and trying to have an impact there also.
Q. How can you help with issues that your committee doesn't have direct control over, like health care?
A. We can still hold hearings on it. We want to know how it's affecting small business, what impact it's having on small business because we are advocating for small business. And we take the information and pass it on to the committee with jurisdiction. We act in many cases as a blocker or flanker for a committee — we can look into more detail, and a larger committee with jurisdiction may not be able to.
Q. Of the eight contracting bills the committee has approved, which do you think are the most important?
A. The biggest one would be the no-bundling provisions, or putting teeth in the rules against the federal government bundling contracts. The next one would probably be increasing the percentage of small business contracts out there from 23 to 25 percent. The federal government literally purchases hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of goods and services every year. And so it's massive, that's direct help right there.
Q. When do you think the full House will consider the bills?
A. We're going to take all of the bills and we're going to roll them into one. I'm hoping in the next couple of months.
Q. What else is on your agenda for this year?
A. We're going to be looking at regulatory reform and some of the completely off-the-wall regulations that this administration is putting out there when it comes to EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the Department of Labor, the Department of Energy. We're going to be taking a good hard look.
Q. Can you give an example?
A. The Department of Labor is proposing a change in child labor laws when it comes to children working on their family farms. They're trying to throw out decades-old laws. The secretary of labor says we're robbing our children of their youth. I would argue that many kids need to be working on the farm. It teaches them responsibility. It teaches them work ethic and everything else. That's just one perfect example. Another is the EPA idea that they're going to regulate dust as a particulant. In the rural areas, dust is just a fact of life, you slide into home plate, you create dust. You drive down the road and you create dust. If you regulate it as a pollutant, that's ridiculous.
Q. What made you interested in serving on the Small Business Committee?
A. The Small Business Committee touches everyone's life. There are so many small businesses out there and particularly in my district, it's all about small businesses. You name it, everything from the restaurant to the mom and pop store downtown to the self-employed truck driver to the farmer. You name, it, it's all small business and it touches everything.
Q. You grew up on a small business — a family farm. What was your biggest satisfaction in doing that work?
A. The biggest satisfaction in running a small business was being able to accomplish it. Before I could be part of the family operation, my dad wanted me to go out and be on my own. So I had to go out and borrow money to be able purchase equipment, borrow money to be able get my operating costs, borrow money eventually to buy land. And to able to successfully do that on my own. Dad says, you gotta crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run. That was the biggest satisfaction by far.
Q. And your biggest frustration?
A. We do a wonderful job of producing food and fiber for the world. But we do a very poor job of explaining why it's so important and why every single person out there should be interested in food policy. Every single American depends on agriculture three times a day, whether they realize it or not. That's always been a huge frustration.
Uncertainty and taxes have always been a frustration and it is for every single small business owner. They don't know what the tax code's going to look like at the end of this year. And with these extensions (of the payroll tax cut). We're not giving any certainty to folks.
Joyce Rosenberg can be reached at http://twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg.Tags: