International traders and micro-businesses seeking assistance from the Small Business Administration got a potentially big boost on Tuesday when the House gave the thumbs up to two pieces of legislation.
The SBA Trade Programs Act of 2007 boosts the size of guaranteed loans for export working capital or other international trade matters to $3 million (from $2.25 million) and increases the guaranteed portion to $2.25 million, from $1.5 million. It also directs the SBA to hire six new trade finance specialists to join the 16 currently at work, and fill the four or so positions that according to James Morrison of the National Small Business Exporters Association that have been vacant since 2003. These specialists act as intermediaries between small exporters and banks -- a crucial role because "export financing is very, very difficult to obtain," says Morrison. "At most just 25 banks across the U.S. will take an unknown small- or medium-sized enterprise and provide a loan."
The bill, sponsored by New York Democrat John Hall also puts some teeth in the SBA Office of International Trade's mandate to insure that small business interests are represented in U.S. trade negotiations. Some provisions are pretty general -- the SBA "shall establish programs that will boost the export opportunities of entrepreneurs and encourage transnational organizations" -- but it would also require the SBA, among other things, to make formal recommendations for trade policy and articulate an annual trade strategy.
The legislation passed the whole House on a voice vote. Interestingly, John Hall is not a member of the House Committee on Small Business.
The other bill, the Microloan Amendments and Modernization Act, was sponsored by the Small Business Committee's ranking Republican, Steve Chabot of Ohio. It makes microlending more flexible by allowing bigger loans for longer periods, among other things. As I wrote in a story for Inc. about the SBA, the microloan program is a powerful tool for creating lasting businesses in poor communities that's way under-appreciated by the Bush Administration. A survey by the Aspen Institute found that nearly half of American micro-borrowers were still in business five years later, a higher share than the SBA reports for small businesses as a whole.
This bill passed the House by a vote of 385 to five. Most of the congressmen running for president were too busy campaigning to manage to cast a vote. Only Republican Ron Paul of Texas made an effort to be there -- he was one of the five who voted against it. (You go, Ron!) You can see how your representative voted at the Washington Post's U.S. Congress Votes Database, which tracks yeas and nays not just by home states, but also by gender, "boomer status," and astrological sign.
I said "potentially" earlier because both bills now have to make their way through the Senate and then, should they become law, win funding -- a whole other can of legislative worms. But if nothing else, both seem to have a decent shot at enactment; the Senate passed similar versions to each bill last year.