There has been a considerable amount of controversy over the last year or so in the area of small business programs. In International Program Group, Inc., (B?400278, B?400308, 19 September 2008) the Government Accountability Office (GAO) held that HUBZone set-asides took priority over service-disabled veteran-owned small business (SDVOSB) set-asides and SDVOSB sole source acquisitions. This was unsurprising given the clear language in the FAR. In Mission Critical Solutions (B?401057, 4 May 2009) (also see reconsideration), the GAO held that the HUBZone set-asides took precedence over the 8(a) program. This was surprising given the clear language of the FAR. Of note in both cases was that the GAO solicited and rejected the Small Business Administration's (SBA's) interpretation of the applicable statutes, which was that there was parity among the 8(a), HUBZone, and SDVOSB programs. It was after the latter case that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) stepped in with a memorandum advising agencies to disregard the two GAO decisions and providing the following guidance:
Pending the completion of the legal review of the GAO's decisions by the Executive Branch, the SBA's "parity" regulations should not be disregarded by contracting officers, and Federal agencies should not, as a result of the GAO's decisions, be compelled to prioritize HUBZone small businesses over 8(a) BD or SDVOSBs. Instead, until the legal review is completed, Federal agencies should continue to give active consideration to each small business program pursuant to their pre-existing contracting practices and "parity" policies.
Remarkably, this guidance 1) assumes that contracting officers had been following the parity policies implemented in SBA's regulations and 2) implies that, henceforth, contracting officers are free to treat HUBZone, SDVOSB, and 8(a) contractors as equals. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that there were no pre-existing "parity" policies in the FAR. Prior to the GAO decisions, the FAR Council issued a proposed rule that would have implemented parity among the three programs?something that clearly did not exist in the FAR. See 73 FR 12699. As of today, the FAR Case dealing with Socioeconomic Program Parity (2006-034) has been tabled. As such, any contracting officer subject to the FAR that thinks that they have been given the green light to disregard the FAR and treat all three programs the same should think again.
Consider the following scenarios:
Scenario 1: The conditions for both a HUBZone set-aside and a SDVOSB set-aside (or sole source) exist for a particular acquisition exceeding the simplified acquisition threshold. The requirement cannot be satisfied through the 8(a) program.
In this scenario, FAR 19.1305 requires a HUBZone set-aside:
(a) A participating agency contracting officer shall set aside acquisitions exceeding the simplified acquisition threshold for competition restricted to HUBZone small business concerns when the requirements of paragraph ( b ) of this section can be satisfied.
( b ) To set aside an acquisition for competition restricted to HUBZone small business concerns, the contracting officer must have a reasonable expectation that?
(1) Offers will be received from two or more HUBZone small business concerns; and
(2) Award will be made at a fair market price.
If a CO chose to pursue a SDVOSB set-aside (or sole source) in this scenario, he or she would be deviating from the express requirements of FAR 19.1305. However, a CO subject to the FAR does not have the authority to deviate from the FAR without approval from the agency head (see FAR 1.4). Further, we already know from International Program Group that the GAO would sustain a protest if an agency were to pursue a SDVOSB set-aside (or sole source) when the conditions for a HUBZone set-aside existed. While we don't know for sure how the Court of Federal Claims would decide such a protest, it would be surprising if they were to find that a HUBZone set-aside were not required, given the clear language of the FAR. On the other hand, proceeding with a HUBZone set-aside would be compliant with statute, the FAR, and the SBA regulations (which allow a choice of programs).
Scenario 2: The conditions for a HUBZone set-aside exist and the requirement can be satisfied through the 8(a) program.
FAR 19.800(e) provides for a "soft" priority for 8(a) as follows:
Before deciding to set an acquisition in accordance with Subpart 19.5 [small business set-asides], 19.13 [HUBZone set-asides], or 19.14 [service-disabled veteran-owned small business set-asides] the contracting officer should review the acquisition for offering under the 8(a) program.
While FAR 19.800(e) doesn't mandate that an acquisition be offered to the SBA under the 8(a) program if it can be, the implication is that there should be a good reason for not doing so. (FAR 2.101 defines should as "an expected course of action or policy that is to be followed unless inappropriate for a particular circumstance.") Thus, it would be unwise to simply ignore FAR 19.800(e) and proceed with a HUBZone set-aside?there should be something in the file that evidences the contracting officer's compliance with FAR 19.800(e). The same would be true if the conditions for a HUBZone sole source, SDVOSB set-aside, or SDVOSB sole source existed.
The Department of Justice Opinion
Responding to a request from the SBA, the Justice Department provided a legal opinion pertaining to the SBA's interpretation of the relevant statutes. The opinion found as follows:
Having carefully reviewed the relevant legal materials, including SBA's own views, we conclude that the Act does not compel SBA to prioritize the HUBZone Program in the manner GAO determined to be required. In our view, SBA's regulations permissibly authorize contracting officers to exercise their discretion to choose among the three programs in setting aside contracts to be awarded to qualified small business concerns. Further, in accord with this Office's longstanding precedent, GAO's decisions are not binding on the Executive Branch.
I can't wait to see how DOJ's reasoning holds up in the Court of Federal Claims (assuming we'll see a case). For argument's sake, let's assume that the opinion is correct. Does this mean that contracting officers can now ignore the FAR and treat all three programs equally? I don't think so. The opinion did not say that the FAR is wrong. It says that the SBA did not misinterpret the statute. Thus, the SBA has permissibly given agencies the discretion to choose among the three programs. The FAR Council has already made the choice for contracting officers?HUBZone takes priority over SDVOSB and 8(a) takes priority (albeit a "soft priority") over HUBZone and SDVOSB. The FAR Council may give this discretion to contracting officers, but the FAR would have to be changed to do so.
In its memorandum, OMB stated that the results of its review of the legal basis underlying the GAO's decisions were expected this past summer?still no word from them as of Black Friday. Any further guidance issued by OMB should acknowledge the priorities that exist in the FAR and explain how contracting officers are to proceed. Merely stating that contracting officers are free to abide by SBA's "parity" policies without acknowledging the rules of the FAR will be most unhelpful.
In the meantime, contracting officers that find themselves in Scenario #1 above should proceed with a HUBZone set-aside. Contracting officers that find themselves in Scenario #2 above should document compliance with FAR 19.800(e) before proceeding to any other type of set-aside or sole source.