Here's a man who's probably going to be very helpful to small business -- not for what he says he's going to do, but for what he does.
Warren B. Rudman is a U.S. senator, a freshman from New Hampshire, and a Republican who defeated a liberal one-term Democrat. He's 51, a small businessman, a lawyer, and a former state attorney general. He flies his own airplane, he used to be in the Army, and he doesn't go to parties. "He just works," says his friend Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), also a freshman.
What sets Rudman apart from other so-called small business supporters in Congress is that he isn't necessarily looking for ways the government can help small business. Rather, he's looking for ways to help the government get the best value for the taxpayers' dollar. But often, as Rudman is learning, you do that by forcing government to transact more of its business with competitive small firms.
Last year, Rudman sponsored only one of the nearly 2,000 bills, most of them duds, that senators lobbed into the hopper. His bill, the Small Business Innovation Research Act, requires several of the largest government agencies to set aside a small percentage of their research and development grants and contracts for small companies.
Free market purists were aghast. Setasides! We're philosophically opposed, sputtered Administration bureaucrats. "That's bull," retorts Rudman, who is as strong an advocate of the free market economy as the next Republican. But the bureaucrats, Rudman says, were just waving the free market banner to distract attention from their comfortable habit of doing business exclusively with the same safe and familiar big companies they've always done business with. "You don't expect a bureaucrat to sit before you and say he's afraid of making a mistake and being blamed for it," says Rudman.
But Rudman's pragmatism also dictated that he not take on the federal bureaucracy or the academic community, which also has a proprietary interest in the status quo of R&D expenditures, until he had signed on 52 senators (more than half) as co-sponsors of his bill. Ultimately, he got 86 of his colleagues to come aboard before the bill ever came up for a vote on the Senate floor.
Rudman was tough with the Administration. "We tried to negotiate with him and got nothing but abuse," complains Denis Prager, a science adviser on the White House staff. "We didn't make any enemies on this bill," says Rudman, "except for a few bureaucrats. But hell, they don't count." Rudman is smart enough not to be greedy. Colleagues urged him to make the small business set-aside larger. Rudman demurred, firmly. "The more reasonable the bill we report," he told Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), "the stronger our position.
So what we have here is a freshman member of the majority party, well positioned in the committed structure, whose practical approach to problem solving keeps his mind clear of ideological razzmatazz, and who is favorably inclined toward the private sector and especially toward small business.
James "Kim" Hoeveler, on the staff of the Business and Industry Assn. of New Hampshire, says Rudman's no pushover. "We'll go to him with a problem and our solution, and his attitude is, 'I'm not convinced. Convince me."
"Businessmen have his ear," says Tom Rath, who keeps an eye on the state political land-scape for Rudman, "but they don't own him."
Rudman hasn't announced his next big project. "I don't go public with things," he says, "until I'm damn sure I've got all my ducks in a row."
But one good bet is that he'll take on some aspect of the Pentagon's proclivity to waste money buying ultra -- high-tech weapons and gadgets from sole-source suppliers. He wants to see a lot more competition there from small companies.
Rudman chairs the Small Business Subcommittee on Innovation and Technology and sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and the Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Those three assignments give him a window on almost all government spending and a unique opportunity to closely monitor how the government conducts its business -- especially its defense business.
Rudman's not opposed to spending money on defense, but he'd like to get a dollar's worth of security for a dollar spent. "I think," he says, "there's a tremendous amount to be saved in Defense Department procurement. One of the ways to encourage that is by increasing the amount of competitive bidding on a whole range of products that they buy. Small business could be one of the greatest beneficiaries."