WASHINGTON - The Natural Resources Committee of Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is not the principal committee of jurisdiction over the Small Business Administration Native 8(a) contracting program, so it has had no chance to derail a bill from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., that would limit the program dollars federal agencies must direct toward American Indian and Alaska Native contractors. Waxman's bill has passed the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate.
An especial gripe of Waxman and the like-minded have been so-called ''sole source'' contracts, awarded in large dollar amounts on a non-competitive basis. Alaska Native Corporations have done well enough under the guidelines for sole-source contracting to have drawn heavy criticism over the past two years.
The SBA 8(a) funds provide opportunities for minority businesses and entrepreneurs. Critics, armed with a General Accountability Office study from 2006, have charged that special rules in the Native 8(a) program divert overall minority-preference funding from black and Hispanic contractors. Native 8(a) tribes and businesses have resisted being singled out for their successes under a program intended to foster business success among minority groups.
By inaugurating a series of hearings on Native economic diversity with a Sept. 19 session on the Native 8(a) program, Rahall helped to build a positive record for it in the House. According to a lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to eclipse a client who was also at the hearing, supporters of the Native 8(a) program were jubilant Sept. 19 when 14 lawmakers attended the hearing and expressed support. If only a few committee members had turned out, the lobbyist said, the show of support would have been diluted.
''We need allies. We've got enough enemies.''
Rahall and ranking member Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, set a tone for the hearing in their opening remarks. Young described the Native 8(a) program as being ''under attack'' in other committees of Congress, and Rahall set the perimeters of the big picture.
''With a 26 percent poverty rate in Indian country and unemployment rates as high as 80 percent, the need for economic development in Native communities is self-evident,'' Rahall said. ''Some Native governments have made great strides in combating this situation while others continue to struggle. Likewise, some federal programs have worked better than others. ... Testimony today will discuss the benefits that the Native 8(a) program has brought to Native America.
''Data shows that tribal and Alaska Native corporations received less than 1 percent of the $377.5 billion awarded through federal procurement contracts. Of the $145 billion awarded through sole source contracts, tribal and Alaska Native corporations only received approximately 1.4 percent of that amount. ... I look forward to hearing testimony on how this program affects Native communities and how it can be improved to ensure that it is working as intended.''
In a voluminous and impassioned defense of Native 8(a) contracting, Neal McCaleb, chairman of the board of Chickasaw Nation Industries Inc., described Native 8(a) successes, and the strength they bring to Native economies, as antidotes to the darkest chapters of the American Indian past. ''While in the past our presence served to threaten others,'' McCaleb said, ''today we represent an important opportunity for partnership and shared success across America, especially in rural and remote America. As tribes work toward modern prosperity and enjoy varying degrees of economic success in our times, we remember well what happened in those eras. Working together with the federal government, the private sector and our neighbors will ensure that the experiences of those eras never return. ...
''Please, do not harm this program.''
Tex Hall, chairman of the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance, called on all tribes to support Alaska Native Corporations as they endure the withering criticism of Waxman and company. ''Although the recent attacks have been aimed at our Alaska Native brothers and sisters, make no mistake - they are attacks on tribes and all Indian people. As our collective history has shown, when termination policies come for one, they come for all.
''Indian country, we must not sleep. We must unify to protect our full participation in the 8(a) program.''