The federal contracting process can be a maze of high walls not easily scaled by small and minority businesses. That demands two things of state and local officials as they prepare for the expansion of military bases in Maryland: They must help contractors navigate the system and urge military commanders to include small businesses in the related work.
The problems small businesses face in securing federal contracts have been known for some time, and Congress is moving to remove some of the obstacles. That's important because concerns regarding work related to the base realignment and closure (BRAC) process reflect larger issues of fairness, opportunity and oversight.
One barrier to small business participation is the practice of "bundling" all kinds of service needs - from janitorial services to nuclear waste cleanup - under one major contract. The result often is that small businesses can't compete.
Another problem involves prime contractors who include small businesses in their bids but never follow through and hire them. And when subcontractors have trouble getting paid, federal contract officers offer little or no help in settling these disputes because they say their relationship is with the prime contractor. That's a poor excuse, and the government should penalize prime contractors who don't pay their bills.
Legislation sponsored by Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin would address some of these problems and require the Small Business Administration to assess the impact of bundling on small and minority businesses. Congress should approve these needed reforms, including stronger oversight of the process.
In Maryland, state officials preparing for BRAC-related business have held workshops on the federal contracting process for small businesses. That's the right approach, but they need to broaden their outreach to include business groups across the state that represent minorities.
Local governments also should insist that military commanders at Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground ensure that private developers working on the base include small businesses in their deals. Their participation could be negotiated as part of these special lease agreements.
There's a lot at stake here. Maryland military facilities are expected to receive $446.3 million in BRAC-related construction projects, and it's incumbent upon federal, state and local officials to make sure that every one has an equal shot at sharing in the work.