By Josephine Hearn

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Small Business Act may undergo a "complete rewrite" in a reauthorization bill headed for the House floor later this month.

Aides to Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Small Business Committee, have been working on a 440-page revision of the act to reauthorize the agency and eliminate legislative deadwood accumulated over the years.

"There are many situations of an act that remains unintelligible, apparently even to the SBA itself," said Rich Carter, a spokesman for the committee.

But some observers suggest the rewrite has more ambitious goals and may indicate that lawmakers are unhappy with the current course of the Small Business Administration (SBA).

"The House is concerned that SBA is not being managed well," a former administration official said. "If the House bill passed, it would give [the SBA] a lot more guidance on what [it] should and should not be doing."

"It's stepping into a management role," said a Democratic aide.

The bill contains provisions that lay out the responsibilities and backgrounds of SBA staff. For example, the bill would limit the number of associate administrators to four and indicates their duties. Also, it would require that regional directors meet certain procurement goals or face transfer.

The highly specific language of the bill may reflect Congress' frustration with the SBA under Administrator Hector Barreto. On a number of occasions, the SBA has not been timely or thorough in its responses to congressional requests, congressional aides said.

A spokesperson for the SBA did not return a call for comment.

Carter insisted that the revisions were not an attempt to micromanage the SBA. Rather, the bill was designed to improve efficiency and accountability in regional offices and bring the act into line with current practice.

"It's been decades since it's been completely rewritten," he said. "There are no major content changes."

The House Small Business Committee approved the bill by voice vote July 24.

A smaller reauthorization bill sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) passed the Senate by unanimous consent Friday. Congress had originally faced a reauthorization deadline of Sept. 30, but a continuing resolution passed last Thursday extended SBA funding through Oct. 31.

The Senate bill also contains provisions designed to improve efficiency at the SBA, including specifically stating deadlines.

The Senate bill would reauthorize SBA programs for three years, the House bill for two.

House aides have been working with administration officials for several weeks to go over the revisions line by line, Carter said.

The administration had originally proposed that the SBA be reauthorized for six years at level funding, a move that would have signified a sizable real cut in funding in light of inflation. In the midst of the "jobless recovery," the proposal raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill because it would have jeopardized programs designed to aid small businesses, which account for two-thirds of all new jobs. Neither bill took up the level-funding proposal.

Other provisions in the bills include increases in loan programs for small manufacturers and enhancements to programs directed at businesses owned by women and minorities.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill have provisions that would discourage contract bundling, which small-business leaders say has kept them from obtaining lucrative federal contracts, especially with the Defense Department. Small businesses often do not have the resources to bid for multiple contracts at the same time. The bills also expand procurement programs designed to help small businesses bid for federal contracts.

President George Bush said in a speech in March of last year that contract bundling should be curtailed.

In updating the act, drafters of the House bill are seeking to remove language that no longer applies in practice.

"The Small Business Act is so poorly drafted, and the accretions made over the years make it nearly impossible to determine whether the SBA is even complying with the law," wrote a House aide in a summary of the bill.

For example, the Clinton administration changed the name of a certain office, unaware that the earlier name had been explicitly mandated in the act. Technically, the name change would be illegal, since executive fiat cannot go against a statute. The House rewrite attempts to eliminate such inconsistencies.