TO READ THE FINANCIAL PRESS, you'd think tax reform was the only issue of business interest on Capitol Hill this year. But, in fact, a number of other bills directly affecting business -- small business in particular -- have been on the legislative agenda. A few of them are inching forward in committees, while others are tied to budget negotiations. At the moment it's hard to say much if anything about business life after this 99th Congress. Nonetheless, here's a brief status report on some of the more important business issues:
* Product liability. In June, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a federal product-liability bill that would preempt certain state laws. It would encourage early, out-of-court settlement of claims, limit damages for pain and suffering, and limit joint-and-several liability for noneconomic damages -- the "deep pockets" doctrine. The committee rejected amendments that would have required attorneys' disclosures of fee arrangements, established uniform federal fault-based liability standards to preempt state law, and limited punitive damage awards. The House has not acted on the issue, however, virtually assuring that there will be no national product-liability law this year.
* Rule of Two or More. In May, the Office of Management and Budget proposed to scrap this small-business set-aside program, which directs the feds to reserve for small-business competition any contract for which bids from two or more small companies are anticipated. All told, it's worth some $17 billion a year to small firms. Congress seems almost certain to preserve the rule as is until the end of next April, and to prevent the Administration from changing it without the consent of Congress.
* Small Business Innovation Research Program. Under SBIR, 11 federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, reserve 1.25% of their research funds for small-business bidding. This year it will bring small firms $355 million. The program expires on October 1, 1988, however, and unless it is extended soon, contracting and grant officers will begin scaling back future projects. The House has extended the program through 1993, but no companion legislation is pending in the Senate. The program is viewed by legislators as successful, though, and will likely win reauthorization, if not this year, then early in the next.
* Corporation for Small Business Investment. COSBI legislation, passed overwhelmingly by the House Small Business Committee, would "privatize" the 360 active small-business investment companies, now licensed and regulated by the Small Business Administration. In 27 years of operation, SBICs have put $6 billion in some 70,000 businesses, the vast majority of them small. The SBA guarantees the loans. SBIC resources, however, are hostage to budget swings and politics. The White House, for instance, tried to cut off the funds last year in its attempt to kill the SBA. COSBI would enjoy a status similar to the Federal National Mortgage Association, and would free SBICs from all that. It would acquire $1 billion of SBIC debentures held by the Federal Financing Bank to beef up its balance sheet, and eventually provide as much as $1 billion a year of fresh capital. Since COSBI would reduce the federal budget, and budget cutting is now a paramount concern, it's expected to pass this year.