In 1980, when an influx of Cuban refugees was hurting tourism in south Florida, Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) helped persuade the Small Business Administration to provide low-interest loans to charter boats, gift shops, even a hot tub emporium.
Last year, after El Nino weather currents reduced the salmon catch in the Northwest, Rep. Douglas H. Bosco (D-Calif.) and Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) pushed through a bill ordering the SBA to declare their states a "nonphysical" disaster area.
Also last year, when the devalued Mexican peso was hurting border businesses, Rep. E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.) developed an amendment directing the SBA to provide nonphysical disaster loans in Texas and three other states.
During its 32-year history, the SBA has become a sort of petty cash drawer for members of Congress, who pop it open whenever they need a few dollars for the folks back home.
And that, rather than any great outcry from the owners of the nation's small businesses, is why President Reagan's plan to abolish the SBA has attracted little congressional support.
When the National Federation of Independent Businesses polled its 500,000 members about the SBA, two-thirds said they had never written or called the agency. Half said they were not familiar with its programs, and three-quarters said the agency had no effect on their lives.
"All they have is a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling about the SBA," said federation spokesman Jim Weidman. "But warm, fuzzy feelings are not going to motivate people to stand up and scream their lungs out."
SBA officials said their agency has become a dumping ground for lawmakers' pet projects, ranging from the women's business program to an office for veterans to a $50 million park landscaping program.
"Over the years, they've tacked on everything," one official said of Congress. "Why the hell should SBA be helping farmers? Why should we be involved with a couple of hundred salmon fishermen in the Northwest? We've even had to give out money for tree planting."
But these programs are the reason that the $730 million agency seems to have a better reputation among members of Congress than among many of its intended constituents.
Take, for example, the SBA's new small business development centers. Many agency officials regard them as thinly veiled subsidies for the universities at which they are based. But the centers, ordered by Congress, happen to be in the home states of 18 of the 19 members of the Senate Small Business Committee.
"The SBA is a creature of Congress," said Bob Santy of the accounting firm Touche Ross & Co. "If the agency is abolished, what happens to the two committees whose sole jurisdiction is SBA?"
Santy should know; he was the SBA's chief of staff last year. Before that he worked for the Senate Small Business Committee. His firm surveyed members of Congress and found that 78 percent think that the SBA is a real help to small business.
The findings were unveiled at a news conference with House Small Business Committee Chairman Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), who said the agency's demise "would be a real crippling blow to small business."
Santy's former boss, Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), also opposes the Reagan plan, saying that the SBA "provides essential services to a vital sector of our economy."
As the battle lines have been drawn, it has become clear that Reagan's plan to abolish the SBA is really a fight over which parts of the agency -- and which constituents' programs -- will survive.
The SBA's advocacy office, beloved by the small business lobbies because it acts as their spokesman within the bureaucracy, would be moved to the Commerce Department. That office costs $5 million to run.
Commerce also would continue the SBA's minority set-aside program, which last year reserved 4,944 federal contracts worth $2.6 billion for minority firms. Opponents, such as Associated General Contractors, call this a "welfare program" that drives up the cost of federal contracting. But it has a strong, entrenched constituency.
The administration is willing to preserve these programs because it is after a much fatter target: more than $4 billion a year in small-business and disaster loans and loan guarantees.
The Office of Management and Budget said in a report that these loan subsidies go to only 21,500 firms -- including such often affluent borrowers as doctors, dentists and veterinarians -- and that more than half the borrowers are repeat customers.
The OMB said the subsidies provide "special advantages for a relative handful of 'government-wise' loan seekers . . . . SBA loan subsidies go mostly to economic strap hangers -- weak businesses who get repeated SBA loans."
The default rate on these loans has run as high as 23 percent. And these defaults have cost the Treasury $4 billion over the last decade, the budget office said.
Weidman echoed this criticism, saying that the SBA "does some real nice things for a very small group of people."
Weicker and some Republicans have tried for years to eliminate the direct loans, although they would retain the SBA's loan guarantees, which are limited to more successful firms that can qualify for private financing.
But Mitchell and other House Democrats have vowed to preserve the low-interest loans as the only form of credit available to many high-risk and minority firms.
Opponents have seized on a proposal to have the Treasury Department collect the SBA's $10 billion in outstanding loans, saying that this would cost more than the savings from shutting down the SBA. They say the Treasury would recoup 19 cents on the dollar, $6 billion less than if the SBA were around to collect on the loans.
James C. Sanders, the soft-spoken SBA administrator who has made clear he would rather see the agency continue, agreed that he serves a limited clientele.
"The SBA was never designed to contact all the small businesses in America," Sanders said. "All these other programs were put onto it by Congress. I've been critical of a lot of the programs that we've tried to eliminate."
The other loans that Reagan wants to end -- those for businesses struck by natural disasters -- also are popular. Farmers kept flocking to the SBA until its farm disaster loans swelled to $1 billion a year.
The administration in effect barred farmers from the loan program in 1981, saying that they should deal with the Farmers Home Administration instead. But Congress later opened the doors to farmers again, largely at the behest of Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the SBA.
Smith rejects the view that the agency has become a collection of special-interest subsidies. "I think there's been a reason for all these programs," he said. "A lot of little people are left out of the system, and banks don't want to fool with them.
"Farmers are small-business people," Smith added. "They never had any right to exclude them to start with. That's discrimination against farmers."
The nonphysical disaster loans followed a similar pattern. When there was a mild winter with little snow, the SBA found itself making loans to ski shops and tow truck operators. When cellulose insulation suffered a spate of bad publicity, manufacturers got the SBA to declare a disaster.
Reagan abolished the program in 1981, but Congress since has resurrected the loan fund three times -- most recently for a disaster of the government's making. Congress directed the SBA to declare a nonphysical disaster in 18 states where the federal Payment-in-Kind (PIK) program for farmers has hurt fertilizer sellers and other agricultural suppliers.
Sanders, a former insurance executive, said Congress should get out of the habit of tapping the SBA kitty every time a disaster strikes. Instead, he said, businesses "should buy flood insurance and fire insurance and tornado insurance. I used to sell a lot of that."