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Cardin named top-ranking Democrat on Senate small biz committee

Senator Ben Cardin
Senator Ben Cardin (Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun)

WASHINGTON — When the new Congress begins its work next month, Sen. Ben Cardin will become the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees government policy on small business, giving the Maryland lawmaker a new platform to influence a key sector of the economy.

The assignment to the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee puts Cardin in line for his first chairmanship if Democrats reclaim the Senate in 2016. In the meantime, it offers him a position to affect policy on federal contracting — a particularly important issue for Maryland — and possibly tax reform.

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Cardin has served on the panel since he joined the Senate in 2007.

"Small businesses create jobs. They are the backbone of the American economy," he said. "I want to make sure the federal government remains a reliable customer and a partner with small businesses."

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There are about 28 million businesses in the United States with fewer than 500 employees, according to census data.

The committee's jurisdiction traditionally has been limited — its main charge is oversight of the Small Business Administration — but past leaders have managed to delve into a wide range of issues not addressed by other Senate committees.

Members could play a role next year in the overhaul of the nation's byzantine tax code, an issue both President Barack Obama and Republicans consider a priority. That effort is to be handled primarily by the Senate Finance Committee, but the small-business committee has been influential on tax issues in the past.

Cardin is also a member of the Finance Committee and has long been engaged in tax issues.

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Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the lawmakers who negotiate the tax code overhaul must consider the interests of small business.

"It's pretty hard to argue it's a good idea to take Fortune 500 companies down to [a] 25 percent [tax rate] and leave a mom-and-pop operation … in the high 30s," he told Reuters this month.

Another issue for the small-business committee next year is the share of federal government contracts awarded to small firms. The government has set a goal of directing 23 percent of its procurement to small companies.

The Obama administration announced this fall that it had hit the target in 2013 for the first time in years. But the inspector general of the Small Business Administration found that hundreds of millions of dollars counted toward the goal were, in fact, directed to ineligible companies.

Cardin said he would "continue to hold the federal agencies accountable for taking all steps necessary to meet or exceed the goal of awarding 23 percent of contracts to small businesses."

Maryland is home to nearly 15,000 prime federal contractors that together employ about 250,000 people, according to state estimates. The federal government spent about $26 billion on goods and services in the last fiscal year, ranking Maryland third in the nation for federal procurement as a share of state economic activity, according to estimates from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of the advocacy group Small Business Majority, says the small-business committee has been effective.

"What they have been able to do successfully is use the bully pulpit for business issues on several fronts," he said.

And the committee has a history of bipartisanship, he said. Its members voted unanimously in March to approve Obama's nominee to lead the Small Business Administration. Maria Contreras-Sweet, the nominee, was confirmed by the full Senate soon after.

Cardin said his top priority on the committee will be looking for ways to help small businesses and entrepreneurs get access to capital, a challenge for the many businesses that struggle to meet the requirements of private lenders. The Small Business Administration guaranteed nearly $29 billion in loans in the last fiscal year.

Cardin is also a senior member of several high-profile committees, including Foreign Relations and Environment and Public Works.

The small-business committee is to be chaired next year by Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who is also running for governor of his state. It's not clear how much of a factor that race will play into the priorities he sets for the panel.

A spokesman for Vitter did not respond to a request to discuss the senator's priorities. In a statement this month, Vitter indicated that he might focus the committee on more controversial issues.

"We can make important efforts there to grow our energy industry, free ourselves from the Obama administration's crushing regulatory agenda, reduce the tax burden on small businesses and, of course, repeal and replace Obamacare," he said.

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