Legislative and Regulatory Developments

Today, the SBA issued major proposed rule changes to the HUBZone program. This is the first comprehensive revision to the HUBZone rules since the program’s implementation nearly 20 years ago, and the changes are intended to improve the predictability and stability of the program for participants.

In general, to qualify as a HUBZone firm, the firm must have its principal place of business located in a HUBZone (historically underutilized business zone) and 35% of their employees residing in one or more HUBZones.  The advantages of being a certified HUBZone small business are enormous.  Not only do HUBZone firms qualify for HUBZone small business set-aside contracts, they also qualify for a 10% price preference against non-small business offerors on unrestricted procurements (FAR 19.1307).  The problem, however, is that the HUBZone map regularly changes due to changes in economic data (though Congress recently issued a partial freeze to the map until SBA is able to update the zones following the 2020 decennial census), and in many industries a firm’s ability to maintain a 35% HUBZone-resident workforce is heavily dependent on the location of the contracts it wins.

SBA’s proposed rule changes would make it significantly easier for contractors to maintain their HUBZone status once certified.  Among the most significant changes are:

  • An individual will continue be treated as a HUBZone resident if that individual worked for the firm and resided in a HUBZone at the time the concern was certified or recertified as a HUBZone small business concern and he or she continues to work for that same firm, even if the area where the individual lives no longer qualifies as a HUBZone or the individual has moved to a nonHUBZone area.
  • Certified HUBZone firms would only be required to do annual recertification, rather than immediate recertification at the time of every offer for a HUBZone contract award. A HUBZone small business concern would then represent that it is a certified HUBZone small business concern at the time of each offer, but its eligibility would relate back to the date of its certification or recertification, not to the date of the offer. This would allow certified HUBZone small businesses to remain eligible for future HUBZone contracts for an entire year, without requiring it to demonstrate that it continues to meet all HUBZone eligibility requirements at the time it submits an offer for each additional contract.

Stay tuned for more on these proposed rule changes in the coming weeks and months.  Comments to SBA on the proposed rule changes are due Dec. 31.

Many politically charged issues are likely to steal the headlines during the confirmation hearings for President Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh.  However, one issue unlikely to make headlines is the impact that Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation may have on the doctrine that gives “controlling weight” to the way government agencies interpret their own regulations — known as the Auer Deference doctrine.

Given the composition of the Supreme Court, recent Judicial attempts to re-examine the doctrine, and Judge Kavanaugh’s previous statements, Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation signals the probability of the Supreme Court’s eventual overturning of the Auer Doctrine  — which would be good news for government contractors.

What is Auer Deference?

Auer deference (also referred to as Seminole Rock deference) is a principle of administrative law that requires courts to give “controlling weight” to the way government agencies interpret their own regulations, even where the agency’s interpretation is not “the best” reading of the text in question. Developed from the U.S. Supreme Court’s holdings in Auer v. Robbins, 519 U. S. 452 (1997) and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945), the doctrine mandates that courts credit the agency’s interpretation as controlling as long as it is not “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.”

This obviously puts a thumb on the scale for agencies in the context of contract disputes or bid protests tied to certain regulatory interpretations. It can be particularly harmful to contractors when the agency has altered its interpretation during the performance or procurement of a contract, or worse, during the course of litigation. Unlike agencies whose procurements rely on interpretation of the FAR, agencies that draft and enforce their own regulations (such as the Small Business Administration) are sometimes empowered under Aeur to alter their interpretation to suit the agencies’ needs on a case-to-case basis. Continue Reading Why Judge Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Could be Good News for Government Contractors

Six months into Trump’s presidency, we wrote about how Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan was likely to include more federal deregulation, including possible repeal or suspension of the Davis Bacon Act (DBA).  Two months after that article, comments from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee suggested Trump had changed his tune and would retain the DBA protections perhaps in part to gain support from typically pro-DBA democrats for the administration’s infrastructure plan.

While media sources have reported that the administration’s infrastructure plan all but “died” several months ago, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee somewhat refocuses on the DBA and other government contract industry related legislation.  And while nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation won’t mean repeal of the DBA, his confirmation could mean the reach and application of the Act (and other related legislation) to federally funded projects could be even further limited.

Such potential limitations are foreshadowed in a decision Kavanaugh issued during his time on the D.C. Circuit in the case of District of Columbia v. Dep’t of Labor, 819 F.3d 444 (D.C. Cir. 2016).  There, the contract at issue was one for the lease of certain property that would be used to construct a privately-funded mixed-use development, known as CityCenterDC.  The Department of Labor made the determination that CityCenterDC was a “public work” within the meaning of the DBA, and thus the contract – between the property lessor and the private developer – was subject to the prevailing wage requirements of the Act.  Finding that the lease agreement was not one “for construction,” and was separate and apart from the construction agreements that would follow between the developers and general contractors, Kavanaugh found the DBA was not intended to have such far-reaching application:

The text of the Act is straightforward.  As relevant here, the Act covers contracts “for construction” to which the District Columbia is a party. . . Contrary to the U.S. Department of Labor’s suggestion, moreover, neither the lease agreements nor the development agreements between D.C. and the developers are themselves contracts for construction to which D.C. is a party. . .

The Department’s interpretation of the statutory term “contract…for construction” would significantly enlarge the scope of the Davis-Bacon Act.  The Department’s interpretation would embrace any lease, land-sale, or development contract between the Federal Government or D.C. and another party, so long as to the agreements required the counterparty in turn to undertake more than an incidental amount of construction.  The terms of the Davis-Bacon Act are not so malleable.  A contract for construction is a contract for construction.  And a lease, land-sale, or development agreement that contemplates one of the parties entering into a future contract for construction with a third party construction contractor is not itself a contract for construction.

In applying his hallmark strict constructionist views, Kavanaugh’s decision in District of Columbia could be a sign of what’s to come – i.e., more limitations on what some in the industry consider bureaucratic overreach.  While it is rare that a decision directly impacting the government contracting industry reaches the United States’ highest court, Kavanaugh’s judicial “style” could mean legislation such as the DBA and other, ancillary legislation becomes more limited in its reach.

Despite recent political shifts away from globalization, international trade – particularly U.S. exports – will remain a substantial component of the U.S. economy. Companies doing business in the U.S. and overseas must be up to date on U.S. export control regulations. An important component of these regulations are the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”), which are administered by the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”). The EAR covers the export of commercial products that have the potential for dual use—meaning the item has both a commercial and military use—and as such, covers a broad range of products, hardware, software, technical information, and data.

Among the EAR requirements is the Unverified List (“UVL”).  An entity listed on the UVL indicates a “red flag” for U.S. companies because the “bona fides” of these foreign recipients cannot be confirmed by the BIS.  Specifically, entities end up on the UVL when BIS cannot verify the “legitimacy and reliability relating to the end use and end user of items subject to the EAR,” 15 CFR § 744.16(c), and, as such, BIS cannot confirm the location of the foreign entity or the stated use of a controlled item by that entity.  (The UVL does not require any active intent to prevent “end use” verification. Foreign entities that have actively failed to cooperate with BIS end-use check risk ending up on the Entity List which imposes specific licensing requirements in addition to the other provisions of EAR.)

The UVL creates additional responsibilities for any exporter who intends to conduct business with an entity on the UVL. While the UVL does not preclude export activity involving UVL entities, U.S. exporters must comply with heightened requirements, including obtaining an end-use statement whereby the U.S. company verifies the proposed end use of the item to be transferred, and agrees to cooperate with any government requested end-use checks and post-shipment verification.  Notably, in such cases, exporters cannot rely on any license exceptions. Continue Reading Contractors Take Note – Substantially Expanded List of Unverified Entities For Exporting Under EAR

It seems like a yearly ritual.  The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (“SASC”) drafts and passes a version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) that includes reforms aimed at curtailing bid protests, while the House Armed Services Committee (“HASC”) drafts and passes a version of the NDAA that omits these bid protest reforms.  Every year, the majority of the reforms in Senate are eliminated during the conference committee process.  However, the FY2019 NDAA appears to be headed towards a break in this yearly ritual.

On June 5, 2018, the SASC introduced its version of the FY2019 NDAA to the Senate.  For the first time in several years, the SASC’s proposed version of the FY2019 NDAA does not contain any major reforms to limit bid protests.  The SASC’s proposed FY2019 NDAA (Section 811) contains only a few provisions aimed at bid protests, neither of which would limit bid protests.  Both provisions appear to be related to findings in RAND’s 2018 report of DoD bid protests:

Continue Reading Senate’s Proposed FY2019 NDAA Includes No Major Bid Protests Reforms (Despite DoD’s Request for Legislation to Curtail Second-Bite Protests)

Back when Congress passed the FY2017 NDAA, they included a provision (Section 1822) requiring SBA to create a pilot program to provide opportunities for qualified subcontractors to obtain past performance ratings. Specifically, Congress mandated that SBA create a 3-year pilot program whereby small business concerns without a past performance rating as a prime contractor in the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS) (i.e., without a CPAR) may request a past performance rating in the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS), if the small business is a first tier subcontractor under a “covered contract.”  This pilot program has been codified at 15 U.S.C. 637(d)(17).

Recently, SBA published notice indicating that it will soon – possibly as early as late June 2018 – be commencing this pilot program. This exciting program could give both small business subcontractors and large business primes an additional tool to improve their chances of winning future contract awards. SBA has called for comments on the pilot program by June 19, specifically on the process outlined in SBA’s notice and SBA’s proposed application form for the pilot program (proposed SBA Form 2465).

Who is Eligible to Participate in the Pilot Program

In order to be eligible for the pilot program, a subcontractor must meet all of the following criteria:

  1. Be a Small Business Concern;
  2. Be without a Past Performance Rating as a prime contractor in CPARS;
  3. The application must be made in connection with the Small Business Concern’s performance of a first-tier subcontract under a contract that requires a subcontracting plan;
  4. Completed an application and submitted within 270 days after the Small Business Concern completed the work for which it seeks a past performance rating OR 180 days after the prime contractor completes work on the contract, whichever is earlier.
  5. Subcontract value meets the mandatory CPARS level: exceed the simplified acquisition threshold (as defined in FAR 2.101) or subcontracts for architect-engineer services valued at $35,000 or more as provided in FAR 42.1502; and
  6. Subcontractor is registered and active in the System for Award Management (SAM) located at www.sam.gov.

As seen above, the biggest restriction to this program is that to qualify the small business subcontractor cannot already have any past performance rating “as a prime” in CPARS. However, the pilot program does not necessarily limit a subcontractor to a single past performance review. Nothing prevents a subcontractor from receiving multiple past performance reviews as a subcontractor in CPARS under the pilot program. Small business concerns who only do work as subcontractors may be able to use this program multiple times, which could make them both a significantly more attractive teaming partner for large business primes and increase their own chances of winning prime contracts in the future.

How do Subcontractors Request a Past Performance Rating Under the Pilot Program?

  1. An eligible small business subcontractor completes a SBA Form 2465, which includes, amongst other things, the subcontractor’s suggested performance ratings for each past performance element (i.e. self-ratings) and “justification and written evidence supporting [each] suggested rating.”  The small business subcontractor then certifies the form and sends it to SBA’s Commercial Market Representative (the “Appropriate Official”) at SPPP@sba.gov.
  2. The Appropriate Official forwards the SBA Form 2465 to the Prime Contractor and the Office of Small Disadvantaged Business Utilization (“OSDBU”). The OSDBU and Prime Contractor have 30 calendar days to concur with the small business subcontractor’s suggested ratings, or to contest the suggested ratings and provide justifications for disagreement.
  3. If the OSDBU and the Prime Contractor both agree on a rating, or if either the OSDBU or Prime Contractor fail to respond and the responding person agrees with the small business subcontractor’s suggested ratings, the Appropriate Official shall enter the agreed-upon past performance rating in CPARS.
  4. Alternatively, if the OSDBU and the Prime Contractor both fail to respond to the submitted SBA Form 2465 within 30 days, or if they disagree about the rating, or if either the OSDBU or Prime Contractor fail to respond and the responding person disagrees with the small business subcontractor’s suggested rating, the disagreeing persons (OSDBU and/or Prime Contractor) shall submit a notice contesting the application to the Appropriate Official. The small business subcontractor then has an opportunity to submit comments, rebuttals, or additional information relating to its past performance. The Appropriate Official shall enter into CPARS “a rating that is neither favorable nor unfavorable” along with the initial application from the small business subcontractor, any responses of the OSDBU, the prime contractor, and any additional information provided by the small business subcontractor.

How a Part Performance Review Issued Under the Pilot Program Can be Used

Congress included the following broad language in the legislation concerning the use of past performance reviewed issued under the pilot program: “A small business subcontractor may use a past performance rating given under [this pilot program] to establish its past performance for a prime contract.”

Why Large and Small Businesses Should be Interested in this Pilot Program

Past performance reviews are the life blood of source selection in federal procurement. Nearly every federal procurement will have a past performance evaluation criteria of some kind, and generally past performance is the second most important evaluation criteria (after price). While the law (FAR 15.305(a)(2)) requires that in “the case of an offeror without a record of relevant past performance or for whom information on past performance is not available, the offeror may not be evaluated favorably or unfavorably on past performance,” the reality is that contractors that receive neutral evaluations on the past performance factor rarely win a contract award, absent a major price advantage. Given the importance of the past performance reviews to the source selection process, especially those past performance reviews that reside in CPARS/PPIRS, the SBA’s Pilot Program for Small Business Subcontractor Past Performance Reviews can provide significant advantages for both large business primes and small business subcontractors.

For small business subcontractors the advantages are clear. The pilot program will allow small business subcontractors to get one (or potentially multiple) past performance reviews in CPARS if they do not already have a past performance review as a prime in CPARS. Moreover, because of the process for program, small business subcontractors will be able to receive a past performance review on their own terms, a distinct advantage from the circumstances a prime contractor encounters. The small business subcontractor will be able to propose ratings (which become the ratings default if not countered by the reviewers), they get to cherry-pick which projects/periods of performance to request past performance review for (which allows the small business to only request a past performance review when it knows its performance has been excellent), and the risk of a negative review is mitigated by the requirement that if their is disagreement on a rating the past performance review will be entered into CPARS with “a rating that is neither favorable nor unfavorable.”  Given all these advantages, small business subcontractors without a review in CPARS as a prime should be able to use the pilot program to build a record of past performance, which will better enable them to compete for procurements as a prime contractor in the future, and which will make them a more attractive teaming partner to large business primes (as many source selections allow or require consideration of the past performance records of both the prime and major subcontractors).

This pilot program could also provide major benefits to large business primes that encourage their small business subcontractors to apply for past performance reviews. As already noted, many source selections allow or require consideration of the past performance records of both the prime and major subcontractors. Thus, large business primes often have an increased chance of receiving award if their subcontractors have a strong record of relevant past performance. Under the pilot program, the large business prime actually has influence on the past performance rating that its subcontractor receives, which essentially gives large business primes a role in improving their own team’s past performance record for use on future procurement. Large business primes should encourage the small business subcontractors that they frequently team with to take advantage of this pilot program, thereby allowing the large business prime to present a stronger record of past performance for its team in future procurements.

Oles Morrison partner Adam Lasky will co-present with Shene Commodore, president of Commodore Consulting, LLC during National Contract Management Association’s “Maximizing Teaming Under SBA’s Joint Venture Rules” webinar.

Hear about new rules and major changes the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has made to its joint venture programs.

Learn:

  • SBA’s teaming regulations,
  • Joint venture requirements,
  • Principles for establishing joint venture programs, and
  • How to draft agreements that comply with SBA regulations

Click here to register for the webinar.

As we were reviewing the regulatory agendas of various federal agencies for upcoming regulations that might impact federal contractors, we noticed that the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (“SBA”) most recent regulatory agenda included an upcoming proposed regulation entitled “Consolidation of Mentor Protégé Programs and Other Government Contracting Amendments.”  Specifically, SBA’s regulatory agenda states that:

SBA proposes to consolidate the All Small Mentor Protégé Program and the 8(a) Business Development Mentor Protégé Program into one program.  This rule will also make other revisions in the Government Contracting programs, including the process for approving management changes in entity owned concerns.

According to SBA’s regulatory agenda, this proposed rule was estimated for release in March 2018.  While that obviously did not happen, it is not uncommon for SBA (or other agencies) to issue proposed regulations months (or even years) after originally estimated.

For an 8(a) contractor, there is little (or arguably no) benefit to applying to the 8(a) Mentor-Protege Program (8(a) MPP) instead of the All-Small Mentor-Protege Program (ASMPP), and SBA reviews and approves mentor-protege agreements at a much faster rate if one applies to the ASMPP.  While the ASMPP has been around for over a year now, many 8(a) contractors are still under the misconception that they need to be in the 8(a) MPP in order to bid as a joint venture on 8(a) set-asides.  This is simply not the case, as the ASMPP provides the same advantages to an 8(a) protege as the 8(a) MPP.  Consolidation of these two program should streamline the mentor-protege approval process, and result in the elimination of duplicative and confusing regulations.  We eagerly anticipate the issuance of this proposed regulation to consolidate SBA’s two mentor-protege programs, and hopefully SBA will at the same time address some of the other problems with the mentor-protege regulations (such as eliminating the requirement for SBA to approve a joint venture agreement before award of an 8(a) contract).

 

For years bid protest filings at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have been done by e-mail (or even fax, mail or hand delivery).  In January 2014, Congress directed GAO to establish a electronic filing and document dissemination system (not unlike the PACER system used by federal courts), and authorized GAO to charge a filing fee to those filing bid protests.  Since that time, GAO has been working on developing an electronic filing system, which GAO calls “EPDS.”  The process has taken longer than most expected, but in February 2018 GAO announced EPDS was almost ready and started handling some protests on EPDS as part of a pilot program.  Today, GAO issued the final rule for EPDS, and announced that rule would take effect on May 1, 2018.  This means that starting in May all bid protest at GAO must be filed through EPDS (protesters will no longer be able to file protests by email) and GAO will charge a $350 fee for filing a protest.

Given the short and strictly enforced time limits for filing protests at GAO, those who file bid protests should consider signing up for an account immediately at https://epds.gao.gov/, and familiarize themselves with the new rules well before they take effect May 1st.  GAO has provided handy instruction manuals and videos for EPDS at https://www.gao.gov/legal/bid-protests/file-a-bid-protest.

As we previously discussed, when Congress passed the FY 2018 NDAA it required the Department of Defense (“DoD”) to issue regulations providing for enhanced post-award debriefing rights on certain DoD procurements.  Specifically, Congress mandated enhanced content requirements, a follow-up question process, and corresponding changes to the time to file a bid protest at GAO with a suspension of performance of the protested contract (a “CICA stay“):

  • Enhanced Content Requirements:  While protecting the confidential and proprietary information of other offerors, the debriefing shall include, at a minimum, the agency’s written source selection award determination, redacted to protect the confidential and proprietary information of other offerors.  These enhanced content requirements apply to “required” debriefings if (1) the contract award exceeds $100M, or (2) the contract award exceeds $10M and the contractor requesting the debriefing is a small business or nontraditional contractor who request such disclosure.
  • Follow-up Question Process:  Disappointed offeror would be allowed the opportunity for follow-up questions within two business days of receiving a post-award debriefing to be answered in writing by the agency within five business days.
  • Time to file protest at GAO and obtain a CICA stay:  The debriefing would not be considered concluded, and the five day post-debriefing period pertaining to when a protest needs to be filed to invoke a CICA stay would not commence, until the day the agency delivers its written responses to the disappointed offeror’s follow-up questions.

The enhanced content requirements were to be implemented through DFARS regulatory changes, which DoD has until June 2018 to issue.  On the other hand, the follow-up question process, and corresponding changes to the time to file a bid protest at GAO with a CICA stay, are already reflected in statutory changes (10 U.S.C. 2305(a)(5) and 31 U.S.C. 3553(d)(4)).  Still, changes to the DFARS were expected to implement the follow-up question process.  But this week, in advance of changes to the DFARS, DoD issued Class Deviation 2018-O0011 – Enhanced Postaward Debriefing Rights, which provides for the immediate implementation of the follow-up question process (and corresponding changes to the time to file a protest at GAO and obtain a CICA stay): Continue Reading DoD Begins Implementation of Enhanced Post-Award Debriefing Rights