Vitter took the top seat on the committee last month after Republicans took back the Senate in the November elections. A lawyer by trade, Vitter spent seven years in the Louisiana state legislature before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999. He later ran for one of the state’s two seats in the upper chamber and has spent the past decade in the Senate.
However, he may not be in the nation’s capital much longer. About a year ago, Vitter announced plans to run for governor of Louisiana; the election will be held in October.
In the meantime, he will oversee the Senate committee charged with overseeing the Small Business Administration as well as exploring pervasive problems facing American entrepreneurs. During an interview, Vitter discussed his aspirations for what could be a somewhat short run as chairman, outlining his legislative priorities and how he believes they would benefit the small business community. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Harrison: How would you describe the current state of small business across the country?
Unfortunately, I think it has never been worse in terms of public policy. We’re piling more regulation on small businesses than ever before. We have an overly complex tax code. I’m concerned about that and I’m concerned that it’s really changing the face of the American economy, pushing more and more activity toward big companies, which I don’t think is healthy.
Harrison: How do you plan to help turn things around?
We’ll have four broad categories of focus. One is the technical jurisdiction of this committee, which is the Small Business Administration’s programs. So we’ll certainly take a look at those programs and how they can be improved. A second is our general concern for over-regulation, and a lot of that in my mind is from the [Environmental Protection Agency] and in the energy space. I think that’s where it has been particularly bad in recent years, thought that’s probably colored a bit by me coming from an energy state like Louisiana.
A third category is health care and Obamacare, and contrasting the hurdles and burdens faced by small businesses with what I call the Washington exemption and how members of Congress are treated under the law. And the fourth is taxes and the need for real tax simplification and reform. We will pursue all four of those issues in hearings both here in Washington but also in a number of hearings out in the real world around the country.
Harrison: Let’s go back to the SBA. What improvements do you believe need to be made at the agency?
I’ll mention two, the first of which represents my background and my state, and that’s the agency’s disaster assistance programs. I have lived through more federal disasters that I would like with Katrina and Rita and the BP spill, so and I have seen how the SBA has worked well and not worked well in certain areas. I think I have gleaned a fair amount from those experiences about how we can continue to improve the disaster assistance programs, so that will certainly be a focus.
Second will be an emphasis on supporting businesses owned by veterans and service-disabled veterans.
Harrison: With your party now in control of both chambers, do you think small business owners can count on a more productive Congress?
Well, we ran on making a difference, and now we have to make that difference. We have to prove that we’re different, and that involves getting results. It requires 60 votes in the Senate, so it still requires at least six Democrats even if you have unanimous Republican support. But yes, it’s incumbent on us to pass things we believe in and put them on the president’s desk.
Harrison: What are the areas where you think the two parties can work together on legislation for small businesses?
I think trade is certainly one area. In general, I’m very supportive of opening up trade to a greater extent. I think we always need to be vigilant in enforcing trade agreements we sign, which I think we have been pretty poor at in the past, no matter the administration. But that’s an area where we can work together.
Maybe business tax reform is another area. Now, I say ‘maybe,’ because there’s evidence that the president is demanding a big tax increase embedded in that, which is a non-starter in Congress. But maybe there could be some business tax reform.
Harrison: More broadly, what’s your biggest goal during your time as chairman?
I hope we make some real improvements to SBA programs; that’s number one. Number two, I hope that we become a very active and recognized voice for small businesses on an array of issues, even those that may fall outside of our committee’s jurisdiction, and that we participate in a meaningful way in the debate on those issues.