A House Small Business subcommittee yesterday approved a sweeping set of amendments designed to patch up the federal government's sagging and troubled programs of aid to minority businesses.
The bill, a consensus of several proposals for overcoming the last critical barrier to full participation by minorities in American life, would require minority subcontracting by large companies that contract with the government and facilitate the awarding of smaller government contracts to small and minority businesses.
At yesterday's brief subcommittee session, the bill survived a first - but certainly not last - challenge to its most vexing issue, the question of who is eligible for the programs.
As the bill is written, it covers members of socially and economically disadvantaged groups. Blacks, Spanish-speaking Americans, American Indians and other racial minorities are presumed to be disadvantaged.
Members of these groups must be proven ineligible by the small Business Administration to be kept out of the program. Whites of women must prove they are disadvantaged to be considered eligible.
Rep. Milicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) offered an amendment to delete these groups from the bill and consider eligibility on a case-by-case basis.
"Whatever you set up categories," Fenwick said, "you are excluding those who don't quite fit in thhe categories, and in a very pejorative way, you assume that everybody in the group is the same. It's a demeaning and very unfortune development."
Fenwick's proposal capped a week of of reportedly heavy lobbying by women's groups to be included in the bill.
Last summer, in testimony before the subcommittee, spokesmen for women's groups said they did not want to be listed among the disadvantaged groups in the bill.
But in the last week, a task force on women in business headed by Anne Wexler, deputy undersecretary of commerce, began seeking to be listed as one of the groups presumed eligible for the programs.
In a letter to Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee's chairman, Wexler said the task force feels "eligibility (should) be determined on a case-by-case basis . . . However, if the presumption of class inclusion is adopted, the task force recommends that American women be listed as a class . . ."
Committee sources said there is sympathy for the women's position, but there also is concern that there is not enough money in the programs to accommodate both minorities and women in a meaningful way.
"We'd like to give them what they want," said one official close to the situation, "but in a separate bill."
The bill seeks to attack two of the government's most significant problems in the area of minority business - reluctance by large businesses to include minorities as subcontractors and the failure of the 8 (a) program, through which SBA routes contracts to minorities.