Ranking member lauds ‘beacon of bipartisanship'
By: Daniel W. Reilly
January 31, 2008 02:15 PM EST

Long before she was a senator, Olympia Snowe helped her late husband keep the books as he struggled to turn around his father’s construction business.

And with her father-in-law giving them just a year to do it, Snowe, now remarried to former Maine Gov. John R. McKernan Jr., quickly learned how to navigate federal regulations, expand a business and try to stay afloat in a competitive marketplace.

Now, as the ranking Republican on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, the senator from Maine is still guided by the business lessons she learned long ago — even if it means bucking her own party in flagging economic times.

“President Bush does a lot of appearances with small business, but it is not translating [into help] within the agency itself,” she said.

Ever protective of her reputation as an independent-minded moderate, Snowe said she has been “enormously frustrated” by budget cuts at the Small Business Administration over the past seven years of the Bush administration.

“You are seeing a systematic erosion of financial support for the one agency where you are getting the greatest bang for your buck,” she said.

From her twin perches on the Senate Small Business and Finance committees, Snowe is making sure the needs of the small-business owner are not overlooked, especially as Congress considers an economic stimulus package to boost the nation’s sagging economy.

The final details of the stimulus legislation are far from settled in the Senate. But Snowe and her committee’s chairman, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), are confident it will include provisions to allow small-business owners to spread their losses over a number of years and increase to as much as $200,000 the new investments that small business can write off on their tax returns.

Those kinds of provisions can have the “maximum impact and effect on the economy,” Snowe said, because of the speed at which small businesses are able to turn around and potentially create new jobs.

“Small businesses operate in the margins,” she explained. “They don’t have time to navigate through the regulatory complexity.”

Snowe has a sympathetic ear in Kerry, the chairman, with whom she also works closely on the Finance Committee.

The Small Business Committee, she said, is a “beacon of bipartisanship.”

Snowe and Kerry have also begun talks on new legislation to tackle the skyrocketing cost of health care for employees and the crippling effect it can have on business, particularly small businesses.

For years, Snowe has been pushing a bill that would allow small businesses to pool costs by forming health care associations.

And while the idea remains popular, since most associations would cross state lines — posing a regulatory nightmare — the idea has stagnated for years, despite Snowe’s best efforts.

Still, she’s optimistic about a breakthrough.

“There is bipartisan interest in getting this done,” she said. “I don’t see why we can’t, quite frankly. It is a crisis everyday in America.”

Snowe is also on a crusade to break the old-boys-club culture that surrounds contracting in Washington and to fight for more women-owned small businesses.

Late last year, the SBA revised the rules to ensure that 5 percent of the estimated $400 billion a year in federal contracts would go to women-owned small businesses.

Yet Snowe and others were disappointed that the rules pertained to only four industries — out of a potential 140 — in which women-owned businesses could be chosen for contracts, including furniture- and cabinet-making.

“There are 55,000 women-owned businesses in America,” Snowe said. “And they designed only four categories of industries that only applies to about 1,200 businesses in America, out of 55,000. ... It’s appalling.”

So Snowe says she’s planning hearings on the rules. And she intends to offer legislation in the spring to strengthen oversight procedures of SBA loans as well as work on a business innovation research program to provide venture capital for small-business research and development.