Mr. President, I am pleased to see the Military Reservist and Veteran Small Business Reauthorization and Opportunity Act of 2008, a bill that Senator Snowe and I developed, pass the Senate today. Veterans have sacrificed in the defense of our country, and they have earned the support of their Government in reentering civilian life. Senators Hagel, Cantwell, Landrieu, Lieberman, and Tester are cosponsors of this bill.
There are currently 24 million veterans in America, including over 1.3 million who have left military service since 2001. As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, it becomes increasingly vital that returning service-members receive the assistance they need to reenter civilian life. According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate among recently discharged veterans is more than double the national overall unemployment rate: 11.9 percent compared to 4.6 percent. In addition, 55 percent of self-employed reservists experienced income loss when deployed, and 22 percent said that their business suffered serious or very serious harm.
As chairman of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, addressing the concerns of veteran entrepreneurs remains a top priority. In January 2007, the committee's first hearing, ``Assessing Federal Small Business Assistance Programs for Veterans and Reservists,'' looked at the issues facing veterans who wish to start or grow a small business. In March, the committee released a report, ``The State of Veteran Entrepreneurship'' which described the issues facing veterans and listed a series of recommendations to fix those problems. The Military Reservist and Veteran Small Business Reauthorization and Opportunity Act of 2008 is based on those recommendations.
Senator Snowe and I introduced S. 1784, the Military Reservist and Veteran Small Business Reauthorization and Opportunity Act of 2007, on July 12, 2007. In September, that bill was added by unanimous consent as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill; however, unfortunately, it was dropped in the final conference negotiations. In November, after working closely to address concerns of other Members of the Senate, the bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent again, and the House took up the measure on January 16. An amended version passed the House on the same day, and the amended bill was passed by the Senate today. The House changes included removing a study looking at the tax and regulatory barriers facing veterans and reinserting Senate language requiring veteran and military service organizations to serve on a new interagency task force. Although this bill has changed from what I envisioned many months ago, it is an important step forward in supporting the American dream of business ownership for veterans and reservists, and I am gratified to see it pass the Senate and urge the President to sign it as quickly as possible.
The Military Reservist and Veteran Small Business Reauthorization and Opportunity Act of 2007 takes a number of steps to improve the Government's role in supporting our veterans. Specifically, it reauthorizes the veterans programs in the Small Business Administration. This legislation increases the funding authorization for the Office of Veteran Business Development from $2 million today to $2.3 million over 2 years. In light of the large numbers of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and increased responsibilities placed on this office by Executive Order 13360, it is high time that the Office of Veteran Business Development receive the funding levels that it needs.
The bill also creates an interagency task force to improve coordination between agencies in administrating veteran small business programs. One of the biggest complaints that our committee heard at its hearing last January was that Federal agencies do not work together in reaching out to veterans and informing them about small business programs. This task force will focus on increasing veterans' small business success, including procurement and franchising opportunities, access to capital, and other types of business development assistance.
This bill also permanently extends the SBA Advisory Committee on Veterans Business Affairs. The committee was created to serve as an independent source of advice and policy recommendations to the SBA, the Congress, and the President. The veteran small business owners who serve on this committee provide a unique perspective, which is sorely needed at this challenging time. Unfortunately, continuing uncertainty about the committee's future has, at times, distracted the committee from focusing on its core function. Therefore, I have called for its permanent extension. It is clear to me that more needs to be done to address the issues facing veterans and reservists, and the role this committee plays will continue to be important.
Additionally, I have taken a number of steps to better serve the reservists who are serving their country abroad while their businesses are suffering at home. Over the past decade, the Department of Defense has increased its reliance on the National Guard and Reserves. This has intensified since September 11, and increased deployments are expected to continue. The effect of this increase on reservists and small businesses continues to remain of concern. A 2003 GAO report indicated that 41 percent of reservists lost income when mobilized. This had a higher effect on self-employed reservists, 55 percent of whom lost income.
In 1999, I created the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan, MREIDL, program to provide loans to small businesses that incur economic injury as result of an essential employee being called to active duty. However, since 2002, fewer than 300 of these loans have been approved by the SBA, despite record numbers of reservists being called to active duty. It is clear that changes need to be made, so that reservists are informed about the availability of the MREIDL program and that the program better meets their needs. At our hearing last January, we heard suggestions for a number of changes, which would improve the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, and I have included those changes in this bill. They include increasing the application deadline for such a loan from 90 days to 1 year following the date of discharge, creating a predeployment loan approval process, and improved outreach and technical assistance.
This bill also increases to $50,000 the amount SBA can disburse without requiring collateral under the MREIDL program. Reservist families have already sacrificed enough when a family member is called to serve their country. They should not have to forfeit the success of their business and their livelihood as well. This loan program would allow reservist-dependent businesses to access the capital they need to stay afloat without having to sacrifice beyond the service of the key employees. In order to give reservists time to repay the loans, the noncollateralized loan created in this bill would not accumulate interest or require payments for 1 year or until after the deployment ends, whichever is longer.
There are two more provisions, which will help this Nation's servicemembers. One section of the bill will require the SBA to give priority to MREIDL loans during loan processing. Another provision will give activated service members an extension of any SBA time limitations equal to the time spent on active duty. This will make it easier for servicemembers to serve their country while continuing to meet their obligations at home.
Lastly, this bill calls for two reports. One report will look at the needs of service-disabled veterans who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. As a result of the war on terror and improved medicine, we are seeing more service-disabled veterans than we have seen in decades. For some service-disabled veterans, entrepreneurship is the best or only way of achieving economic independence. Therefore, it is essential that we understand and take steps to address the needs of the service-disabled veteran entrepreneur or small business owner.
This bill also calls for a study to investigate how to improve relations between reservists and their employers. In January, the committee heard that recent changes by the Department of Defense to policies regulating the length and frequency of reservist deployments is harming the ability of reservists to find jobs and the ability of small business owners to continue hiring them. Understanding more about this issue is important and essential to making sure that policymakers can continue to support citizen soldiers and the small businesses that employ them.
The bill also includes a number of other important provisions that were added by the House. For instance, this bill includes language directing the Office of Veterans Business Development to increase the number of Veterans Business Outreach Centers and requires them to improve their participation in the Transition Assistance Program. This bill also creates a program reducing 7(a) loan fees for veterans, improves Small Business Development Centers outreach to the veteran community, and instructs the Associate Administrator of the Office of Veterans Business Development to create and disseminate information aimed at informing women veterans about the resources available to them. I am pleased that the House and Senate were able to come to an agreement on these provisions.
Veterans possess great technical skills and valuable leadership experience, but they require financial resources and small business training to turn that potential into a viable enterprise. A recent report by the Small Business Administration stated that 22 percent of veterans plan to start or are starting a business when they leave the military. For service-disabled veterans, this number rises to 28 percent.
We owe veterans and reservists more than a simple thank you for their service. The least we can do is provide critical resources to help them start and grow small business and to hold Federal agencies accountable. That is what our bill does.