WASHINGTON - Congress has tried to help businesses run by disabled veterans, mainly by urging the government to give them more contracts. But the government seems to be resisting.
Lawmakers told every federal agency in 1999 that they should award 3 percent of their contracts to businesses owned by service disabled veterans.
Eight years later, only the Federal Emergency Management Agency has met the target - and exceeded it - according to a report from the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.
The Department of Defense, which accounts for more than half of all contracts issued by the federal government, spent nearly $220 billion on contracts in 2005, the latest year that data was available.
But just half of 1 percent of Pentagon contracts went to businesses run by service-disabled veterans, records show.
"What is so hard about doing business with men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country?" asked Democratic Sen. John Kerry, the Small Business Committee chairman, at a hearing this year.
The veterans' community and its supporters said that for all of its good intentions, the 3 percent law has no teeth. Still, they’re trying to push the bureaucracy to honor it.
"There are no repercussions for not following the law," said Ted Daywalt, president of Vetjobs, an Internet job board for veterans. "It's like, 'So what?'"
Government-wide, less than 1 percent of all federal contracts have gone to businesses owned by service-disabled veterans, according to the Senate report, which was issued in March but received little attention.
"Certainly we need to meet the goal," said Calvin Jenkins, a contracting official with the U.S. Small Business Administration, which oversees government-wide procurement.
He noted the government issued slightly more than a half-billion dollars in 2001 contracts to disabled veteran-run businesses. In 2005, that rose to nearly $2 billion.
Veterans of all stripes own more than 3 million small businesses, according to the Senate report. Jenkins said federal contracting officials contend that part of their problem is finding firms with the skills needed.
But Bob Hesser, a service-disabled veteran who owns a technology consulting firm in Virginia, said disabled veteran-run businesses do everything "from making bags to working on missiles. Every field you can think of."
Disabled Navy veteran Joseph Forney said the problem stems from officials who see the act as discretionary.
"They have the latitude to either use disabled vets or not," he said.
Forney, who lost part of his right arm in a training accident, runs a wholesale electrical supply company in California. He worked to get the 1999 law passed and was an SBA Veteran Advocate of the Year in 2002.
His company has worked for the California state prison system, the Los Angeles school district, AT&T and others. But Forney and others told of being asked to bid on federal contracts, but then never contacted or told that the job had been canceled. They also said that disabled veteran-run businesses sometimes get added as subcontractors to larger jobs because of their disabled status, but then are never given work.
"I'm very concerned that the law is not working out the way we wanted it to work," said former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, who, as a Republican member of the House in 1999, wrote the law. "A lot of it is just inertia. The contracting people, unless they get leadership and constant pressure from the top, are going to take the path of least resistance."
"We're concerned about it," said Anthony Martoccia, who recently became director of the small business program at the Defense Department. "We are making it a priority. We owe the veterans the opportunity when they get back, if they are entrepreneurs, to compete."
Even worse than Defense in terms of meeting the 3 percent goal were the Departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Treasury.
The Departments of Veterans Affairs and State fared better than most, though neither met the goal. Each spent more than 2 percent of its contracting funds on businesses owned by disabled veterans.
Lawmakers waded back into the law in 2003 to make the task of awarding contracts easier. Congress tweaked the law to allow federal procurement officers to issue sole-source contracts to businesses owned by service-disabled veterans in cases where the competition was limited.
Then in 2004, with the Iraq War starting to exact a painful toll on the troops, President Bush issued an executive order underscoring the importance of helping disabled veterans. He ordered federal agencies to step up their contracting, designate a top official to oversee the effort and report their progress annually to the SBA.
But little changed, veterans and their supporters said.
"You'd think that after two laws and a presidential executive order, I'd be turning work down," said Forney.