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Women Urge Congress to Block Contracting Program

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Women Urge Congress to Block Contracting Program

Kent Hoover Washington Bureau Chief

Women business owners hope Congress will block a new procurement program that they say falls far short of what is needed to give women their fair share of federal contracts.

Legislation enacted in December 2000 directed the federal government to set aside contracts for women in industries where they have been underrepresented. It took the Small Business Administration seven years to issue proposed regulations for the program, and its proposal limited the set-asides to only four industries.

The SBA is expected to issue a final regulation in October. Agency officials contend federal courts would rule the set-aside program is unconstitutional unless it is narrowly tailored to remedy actual discrimination.

Groups representing women business owners would rather start over next year with a new administration and a new regulation than move forward with the SBA's proposal. They contend a much broader set-aside program is needed in order for women-owned businesses to receive 5 percent of all federal contracting dollars, a congressionally mandated goal that has never been reached.

"We're working hard to prevent that procurement rule from being finalized," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told women business owners at a Sept. 9 roundtable discussion held by the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

"This proposed rule is an affront to the hard-working women business owners who need nothing more than a chance to show their worth," said Kerry, who chairs the committee.

Congress could use the appropriations process to stop the rule. The federal government's fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and Congress must pass legislation this month to continue funding government agencies. It could attach a provision barring the SBA from spending any money on implementing the women's procurement program.

Anne Sullivan, a lobbyist for Women Impacting Public Policy, said Congress also should strengthen the original legislation calling on the SBA to create a women's procurement program. Congress should clarify its intent and include findings showing how women are being discriminated against in federal contracting, she said. This way, Sullivan said, women wouldn't "end up with an unacceptable and insulting rule" like the one SBA proposed.

Women own 30 percent of all businesses in the U.S., but they've "barely inched ahead" on federal procurement, said Virginia Littlejohn, CEO of Quantum Leaps Inc., a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes the growth of women-owned businesses.

Faye Coleman, president and CEO of Westover Consultants in Bethesda, Md., said she has found that hitting the 5 percent contracting goal for women "is almost an afterthought" for many federal procurement officials.

Federal agencies should award more contracts to women not only because it's the right thing to do, but also to promote economic development, said Sharon Hadary, executive director for the Center for Women's Business Research. Businesses with federal contracts show continued, regular growth, and providing more contracts to women-owned companies will help these firms create more jobs, she said.

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