Native 8(a): keep it going

Would you punish your child for bringing home a good report card?

Hardly.  Yet, that is the thinking behind the latest Washington assault on Native 8(a) contracting, a federal small business development program. This is one government program that actually works as it was intended, delivering value to taxpayers, critical services to our country and opportunities for some of the poorest people in our nation.

Its very success has prompted Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to propose legislation calling for the eradication of the very provisions that make Native 8(a) contracting work so well. Senator McCaskill’s legislation would penalize Native Enterprises by breaking another promise this country made to its indigenous people – and close the door on one of the most promising avenues to economic sustainability.

It’s the same old story. Political, legal and economic rules are slanted against Tribes and anytime something proves valuable to Native Americans, the federal government takes it away.

Congress created the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) 8(a) program in 1958 to help minority and other small, disadvantaged people build their businesses. Congress later brought Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations and Native Hawaiians into the program and granted them additional opportunities. Where most 8(a) businesses are small, often owned by one or two individuals, Native enterprises represent the interests of thousands – and in many cases tens of thousands of owners. Congress recognized that to make a meaningful economic impact, Native enterprises needed access to larger contracts and removed the cap on the size of Native 8(a) awards.

It took many years – and many failures - for our Native enterprises to become the business models many are today. Despite our progress, our share is less than two percent of the $439 billion the federal government spent on procurement contracts in 2007.

While Native 8(a) contract dollars are growing, so, too, are those for other 8(a)s. SBA figures show 8(a) contracts to Black-owned businesses increased by 70 percent from 2004-2008, 86 percent for Hispanic-owned firms and 68 percent for Asian Pacific-owned companies.

The federal government conducts business with Native 8(a) enterprises because they are an extremely efficient and cost effective contracting option that allows the government to fulfill its policy of supporting minority businesses. Being certified 8(a) does not guarantee work or contracts, only performance and value brings additional work. 8(a) success has enabled us to provide jobs, scholarships and dividends to our members, preserve our cultures and help our elders.

In Nebraska, we’ve used profits from Ho-Chunk and its 8(a) subsidiaries to provide for our people. The Winnebago Tribal Council recently passed a motion to use Ho-Chunk profits to fund a $1 million program to provide 20 tribal families each with $50,000 down payments for a new home on the Winnebago reservation. 8(a) made this possible.

In Alaska, 8(a) contracting has proven transformational for many of the regional and village corporations (ANCs) established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Many of these ANCs have grown into global success stories that have the resources to make a difference. A study just released found that in 2008, in the midst of the worldwide recession, the 12 regional corporations paid a total of $171 million in dividends to their Native owners, $24.3 million to a variety of non-profit and community organizations and awarded $11.1 million in scholarships to Native students and their families.

Will 8(a) solve all the problems of Native people? No. Have there been stumbles along the way? Of course. Will there be more? Perhaps. But don’t be fooled by the vocal rhetoric that uses a few stumbles to distort what should be hailed as a success story. We must stop this seemingly endless cycle, where Native opponents use the political system of the United States to take away promised economic opportunities for Tribes and ANCs.  We must stop Members of Congress who seek to place an asterisk on the definition of the American Dream for Native people. Indian Country must unite to defend the rights of Native people and preserve Native 8(a) participation.

Lance Morgan is President and Chief Executive Officer of Ho-Chunk, Inc and Chairman of the Native American Contractors Association. He is an enrolled member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

For more information: The Hill's Congress Blog