The ongoing saga of the hapless SBA reauthorization bill is turning out to be stranger than both science and fiction, with no end in sight that anyone is willing to discuss.

June 7, 2004 -- Late last week, Congress found it necessary to pass another temporary extension of those Small Business Administration programs that don't require an appropriation. The extension passed unanimously in the House and will probably be taken up by the Senate today; it moves the expiration date for these program from June 4, 2004 to July 23, 2004.

Meanwhile, the situation with respect to the overall re-authorization legislation for the SBA is a bit of a mess.

Initially, the SBA was due for reauthorization by the end of the 2003 fiscal year. In the Senate, the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, lead by Olympia Snowe (R-ME), pulled together a relatively simple reauthorization bill that tweaked a few programs -- most notably those serving women business owners -- but didn't do anything major enough to fight about. That bill was passed by unanimous consent last September.

If the House had done the same thing at the same time, the SBA reauthorization would have happened in a nick of time, with the agency authority in place just before the end of the fiscal year.

But the House Committee on Small Business, under Chairman Don Manzullo (R-IL) and Ranking Member Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), decided that the Small Business Act was fifty years old and in need of a re-write. The resulting legislation (H.R. 2802) was lengthy and ambitious, and it is proving to be a labor of Hercules to get it to the floor of the House, never mind conferencing with the Senate to reconcile the differences between the two.

The legislation was introduced and referred to the Small Business Committee, which held hearings and reported it out of Committee with unanimous consent. From there, it was held up in the House Committee on Government Reform for five months, while they just sat on it for unknown reasons. In the end, that Committee did nothing with it or to it.

From there, according to the information in THOMAS, the bill was placed on the Union Calendar back in March. One would have thought that it would have come to the floor for a vote by now.

What's the hold-up? This isn't partisan squabbling in action, nor is it a function of the recent tensions between the House and the Senate (we get to see that later). Apparently, there's some renegotiation going on among some of the GOP members of the Small Business Committee who are apparently having second thoughts about some of the provisions in the bill. And they aren't talking much. Some congressional staffers say that one of the bones of contention involves federal contracting, with 8(a) fans duking it out with HUBZone proponents, but that's about as specific as it is getting right now.

Meanwhile, there's a certain amount of head-scratching going on among everybody who isn't on the Majority side of the House Small Business Committee. "[T]he bill was voted unanimously out of the Committee, but we [Democrats] are not clear ourselves as to why some of these terms need to be renegotiated," Kate Davis, deputy press secretary for Congresswoman Velazquez, told me in an email.

Over in the Senate, there's been finger-drumming, thumb-twiddling and toe-tapping (in addition to the head-scratching) on both sides of the aisle since last September. Whatever in-fighting is going on among Committee Republicans in the House, they've been keeping it to themselves. You can sort of understand why they would, but it doesn't make the delay any easier for their colleagues in the Senate to bear.

None of this stuff is going to make the SBA vanish in a poof of statutory red tape. As long as it's got a budget, the agency will probably continue to function -- although, in light of some other things this agency has done in recent years, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if they were to simply shut down with a press statement saying, "Well, they haven't re-authorized us, so we're out of business."

Then again, since they can't blame the problem on Congressional Democrats, they probably won't. Overall, the entire sequence of events is rather extraordinary, particularly when it comes to a federal agency that is as non-controversial as the SBA. It does lend further credence to the staffers (on both sides of the aisle) who have told me that there are some very conservative elements in Congress, and particularly in the House, who would like to do away with the SBA altogether.

Under the circumstances, one wonders how many more months it will be before the House manages to complete this rather commonplace chore, and get the SBA re-authorization bill to the floor for a vote. We'll hope they get it done before it's time for another re-authorization bill.