A Holiday Miracle--in Federal Contracting

1:01 PM December 4, 2012

No, Congress has not averted the fiscal cliff (yet). But for women-owned businesses, yesterday's work represents a major victory more than a decade in the making. In fact, this story is nothing short of a miracle.


The miracle (in case you could not wait until the end): a proposal to remove award limits in the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contracting Program is included in the annual Defense authorization bill. More specifically, an amendment to the bill, sponsored by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA), was officially added late Monday afternoon.


The provision removes the current caps on WOSB contracts, barriers to successful procurement. That headline, more details, and a great quote from WIPP President Barbara Kasoff can be found in the press release here.


But to really appreciate this win, this miracle even, it is important to know more of the story...


It all began more twelve years ago, when the women business community began advocating for a contracting program for women-owned businesses. This was in response to the consistent failure of the government to meet the Congressionally set goal of awarding 5% of all federal contracting dollars to women-owned businesses(yes, that is where the "5" in the Give Me 5 program comes from).


A little later, eleven years later that is, that program came to fruition. In February 2011, the federal government initiated WOSB set-asides and the WOSB Federal Contract Program was born. (It is important to note, however, that even with the program the government has still consistently failed to meet the 5% goal acrosall agencies.)


The program, however, came with a caveat; there were caps on the contracts that could be included in the set-aside program. In other words, women-owned business procurement efforts had come a very long way--but it certainly was not complete. And, despite tireless efforts by many women-business advocates in both the House and Senate, when Congress recessed in September of this year for the elections it appeared that is would stay that way.


Enter a new, but major character: the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2013. As far as annual authorization bills go, this is a big one (it even has a regularly recognized acronym: NDAA) because it authorizes annual spending for the Defense Department. The House passed their version in May, but was yet to be considered in the Senate.


If averting the fiscal cliff is the number one priority for the lame-duck session, the NDAA is a close second. With only a narrow window before the 113th Congress begins, women's business advocates on Capitol Hill considered the removal of the WOSB caps during this Congress a long shot.


Just consider how damaging these caps have been. The caps currently prevent a WOSB set-aside contract from exceeding a value of $4 million ($6.5 millon in manufacturing contracts). Although nearly five million dollars seems like a large contract, it is important to note that in FY2011, $537 billion--billion, with a "b"--was spent in federal contracting. It is little wonder the government failed to reach its contracting goal with women, when it prohibited the awarding of significant contracts.


These caps prevented federal agencies from using the set-aside program to actively deliver the most lucrative of government contracts. This issue was even critical enough to include in WIPP's 2012 legislative priorities. In other words, the palying field only seemed equal--and how WOSB set-asides were faced with these limits.


These restraints seemed destined to remain, until an opportunity arrived, in the form of the belated NDAA. The bill might serve as a vehicle for the caps to be lifted--and Senator Snowe filed an amendment to that end, a major win in itself as it brought the issue front and center. The issue, though, had not gone unaddressed during this legislative session. The text of the amendment came directly from Senator Snowe's Fairness in Women-Owned Small Business Contracting Act of 2012(S. 2172), which never made it out of committee. The amendment, a short piece of a lengthy bill, represented a long-time effort in this Congress to have these caps removed.


Unfortunatley, the amendment was not alone--nearly four hundred amendments were also submitted for consideration.


Thus began a furious effort to make the amendment's importance clear. The staffs of various Senators and advocates used the steady stream of phone calls, letters, and action alerts on the issue to make the voices of the women's business community heard. A tense weekend followed, with the fate of the amendment and an opportunity at positive change for women-owned businesses up in the air.


Then the call came, news that the amendment was not only pending but had been added to the bill--a bill with an incredible likelihood to become law.


And so it was, that on a surprisingly warm December afternoon, an effort more than ten years in the making was rewarded. In the 112th Congress, it has been hard--even frustrating--to get things done. But for one hard-working weekend, the Senate did a critical piece of legislating. When you really look at the whole sotry--the years of advocacy by WIPP and by women business owners, the gravity of the change needed, the unlikely delay of a normal bill until a lame-duck session, the sheer number of other possible policies added to the bill, and the timeline in which it all happened (a matter of days)--it really is quite an incredible victory.


A miracle even.


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