The Hill Interview: House Small Business Committee chair and ranking member

The Hill Interview: House Small Business Committee chair and ranking member
© Greg Nash

With the Biden administration taking power next month, House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) expects to have better cooperation from the Small Business Administration (SBA) as her panel oversees hundreds of billions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid.

She spoke to The Hill on Monday about the biggest challenges with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), what she wants to see in a new agency administrator and where there’s room for bipartisan legislation.

The panel’s new ranking member, Rep. Blaine LuetkemeyerWilliam (Blaine) Blaine LuetkemeyerMissouri Republicans move to block Greitens in key Senate race Democratic Kansas City, Mo., mayor eyes Senate run Keeping fintech's promise: A modest proposal MORE (R-Mo.), spoke with The Hill in a separate interview Monday about why he thinks the PPP has been a success, how government health regulations are hurting small businesses and how COVID-19 has affected his hometown of St. Elizabeth, Mo.

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Their interviews have been edited for length and clarity.



Question: We recently learned from The New York Times and others that the PPP funds were distributed unevenly, with 1 percent of businesses receiving a quarter of the $523 billion. What is your reaction to those findings?

Nydia Velázquez: From Day One, right after the administration rolled out the first tranche of money, I told the administration that we needed to have access to the data, that as soon as money was getting out, we needed to know where the money was going, who was getting the money, because this pandemic has affected every sector of our economy, but especially those who operate with a thin margin, small businesses. What about the smallest of the small who didn't have any pre-existing relationships with banks? Those, no matter how hard they try to apply, they failed to get access to those forgivable loans. ...

And so now that some of the [media] outlets brought a lawsuit and were able to get information, we are confirming my biggest fear: Ineligible businesses were able to access the money against the rule and the law. So it’s frustrating. And here we are, small businesses continue to struggle, now a high percentage of those minority businesses have closed their doors. They are the one that have been most impacted. It’s underserved communities and underserved businesses that have borne the brunt of this pandemic again and again.

Q: What are some of the biggest oversight issues your committee will need to address in 2021?

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NV: Abuse and fraud. Our responsibility as legislators is to create a program that will get money quickly to those to small businesses, but we have to make sure that there are guardrails, because our main responsibility is to protect taxpayers’ money. And we have seen a lot of corporations, a lot of companies that got not one but two loans over the limits that were established under the PPP, including the Trump Organization.

Q: You mentioned that media outlets had to sue to obtain detailed information about the PPP program recipients. Are you anticipating the Biden administration to be more forthcoming?

NV: Oh, definitely, definitely. I think that not only the president-elect will prioritize the programs that we put forth to serve small businesses ... but also that we are provided [information allowing us] to exercise our oversight responsibilities. ... We held a hearing with the IG [inspector] and the GAO [Government Accountability Office] person, and both of them testified how difficult it was for them to get access to the data. We have never seen anything like this. I've been in Congress for 28 years. We have never seen stonewalling for refusing to allow for us, a co-equal branch of government, the Congress of the United States, to have access to the information.

 

Q: Have you made any recommendations to the Biden team about who you’d like to see leading the SBA?

NV: I expect that the appointees of the SBA will reflect the Biden administration's commitment to diversity. He made it clear that he wants to create the most diverse Cabinet in history and an administration that looks more like America than his predecessor’s, and in addressing the issue of how to narrow the wealth gap that exists, and how do we provide an even playing field for those who are really struggling, and so remember, the mission of SBA is to foster entrepreneurship ... so here we need to have someone who understands what it takes, what are the tools in the toolbox that we need to create in order to address the systemic inequities that exist in our economy. You can have the best idea, and it could be the most innovative person, but without access to capital you're going nowhere.

 

Q: So you have not offered any names?

NV: No, because I have an oversight role, so I do not want to interfere. And I think the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus and others have been providing names.

 

Q: Mr. Luetkemeyer is the incoming ranking member. How well do you know him and where can you find any common ground?

NV: I intend to have a meeting the same way that I had a meeting when [Rep.] Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotWe must address the declining rate of startup business launches Lobbying world OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden administration to evacuate Afghans who helped US l Serious differences remain between US and Iran on nuclear talks l US, Turkish officials meet to discuss security plans for Afghan airport MORE became the ranking member, and I became the chair. ... My committee has the distinction of being quite bipartisan, and I set the tone from the very beginning. When I was the chair and Steve was the ranking member, I operated coming out of my belief that when it comes to small businesses, there's no Republican or Democratic approach. We need to check our ideology at the door. ... What we all know is that we must create an environment that is conducive for small businesses to do what they do best, and that is creating jobs. And of course we need regulations, but we have to also assess what could be the consequences.

 

Q: You have served in Congress for nearly three decades and served twice as Small Business chairwoman, from 2007 to 2011 and again since 2019. Do you have a timeline as to when you might retire?

NV: In my mind, I know. I know. But I’m not going to say it. This is an opportunity for me now, given the experience and what I know as to the programs that exist under SBA. I have a strong opinion as to what is working, what is not, and what else we need to do in creating opportunities for those who have been left behind, given the fact that a Biden administration is focusing inequalities. I'm excited. ... So I'm going to enjoy these next two years, and then we will decide.

 

Q: PPP was launched very quickly in the midst of the pandemic. Now that a number of months have passed, what went right with the program and what needs to be improved?

Blaine Luetkemeyer: It’s an agency that’s kind of antiquated from the standpoint of trying to oversee and initiate a program of the scope and size of what they were given with the PPP program and so for them to be able to get up to speed, be able to within 14 days get as many loan approvals out the door as they did in the previous 14 years, I mean, it is a monumental, almost unbelievable task for them to be able to do, and you have to take your hats off to them for being able to get that done. 

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That being said, obviously because of the size, scope and speed at which this is all done, there's obviously going to be some hiccups along the way. The initial first tranche raised $350 billion. I think there was $280 million that initially we believed went to people or individuals or companies that really didn't qualify. And so, that's a lot of money, but if you put it in perspective of $280 million versus a $350 billion program, that's like 1/1,000th of a percent and so … I'd be tickled to death with that in my private business.

So that being said, obviously, we still want to make sure that those dollars are being given to the right folks for the right reasons, and a lot of that money has already been clawed back by Treasury. So putting in place, for the second tranche, some protections was helpful. We need to go back and review that [inspector general’s] report. And if we do another, second round of PPP here with the new CARES Act 2.0, I think that we need to incorporate some of the protections and watch out for the concerns that the IG report points out. So all things being equal, I think it was a great success as a Treasury program that was administered through SBA. 

 

Q: What’s been the response from the business community to PPP?

BL: I can tell you from having sat in the office of the loan officer as he was inputting these loans, it took about 10 to 15 minutes to put one in, and he literally got the approval back in less than five seconds. And I sat there and watched him do this two or three times. Now the problem is the forgiveness. We've worked with [Treasury] Secretary [Steve] Mnuchin at length ... trying to get this streamlined a little bit, and I've talked to the bankers in my region, and while they're not necessarily happy with having to do loans over $50,000 in a little bit more comprehensive way, they're getting by; they're getting it done. And so there's really quite frankly not very many complaints at this point about it, and it's getting done. I check with local bankers pretty regularly and they're satisfied that the program is working. 

 

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Q: When you talk to small businesses in your Missouri district, what do they want to see from the Congress and the government right now? Is it more loans, more aid?

BL: From my general sense, the answer is just to keep government out of their lives. In other words, you quit mandating these lockdowns. They can protect their employees. They can protect the people who patronize their businesses, but allow them to be in business, allow them to do business. This is their biggest problem right now, it’s the local entities or local governments, whether it's city, county, states that are trying to slap mandates and slap all sorts of requirements onto them that restricts their ability to do business, that restricts their ability to have customers come in and out of their businesses. If they would be left alone, there's enough people out there that want to do business with these businesses that they could survive and go on. ...

I think the economy is picking up; we just don't want to stall out here. ... If they can have Walmart open, I don’t know why in the world you can’t have your local hardware store or your local grocery store or your local shoe store. ... It makes no sense. ... Any business that has got some problems right now, it mostly stems from local mandates on what you can or cannot do with regards to being open and how you have to address your customers.

 

Q: What does the situation look like in your hometown?

BL: I live in St. Elizabeth, Mo. It's a little town of 336 people, so you know we're all all in this together for sure. ... We didn't actually, we didn't have a single case of COVID until mid-September and suddenly in mid-September, the bug found us and it raged through our community, and now there are just two or three people that got it and everybody else is over it, recovered. School is absolutely, positively open, every single kid is attending, every single administrator and teachers are attending except one. ... They do wear a mask for school, so it can be done. It's just a matter of working and managing and keeping everything in perspective. Our local businesses, they're all open. Some of the people in the businesses wear masks, some of them don't depending on what kind of business you're in. None of them mandate that their customers wear masks but if you want to, that's fine. ... We can use that as a model to show that things that can be done to manage businesses in a way that can be healthy and safe.

Q: As ranking member, what will be the focus of Republicans on the Small Business Committee in the new Congress?

BL: I think obviously we're going to ... be in the minority. And if it’s a Biden administration, we're going to be very watchful of the rules and regulations coming out of the administration. You know if Biden continues the Obama regulatory regime, it's going to be very oppressive, it's going to be very restrictive, it's going to be very confining, it's going to hurt small businesses and big businesses as well. ... So I think that's going to be our biggest challenge is to watchdog the bureaucracy to make sure that these rules or regulations are not so oppressive that they hamstring our economy again as they did in the Obama administration.

 

Q: House Republicans had a very good election and are within striking distance of the majority. Do you think Republicans will flip the House and that you will be Small Business chairman in two years?

BL: Well, I think I think we have a good shot. ... I think we're going to continue to do well, especially if the Biden administration overreaches, if the Democrats in the House continue to overreach as they did that in the last session. This [election] was a rejection of socialism, just a rejection of higher taxes, a rejection of the Green New Deal. And this was a rejection of defunding police. All of those were things that we ran against and that they were for.