Talk to people inside the SBA and they'll say the agency is poised to emerge from several trying years of restructuring a stronger, business-friendlier organization.
"The last two years have been a time of aggressive reform to make the SBA easier to work with, easier to get information from," says Sean Rushton, the agency's head of communications. "Now we are actually beginning to see measurable results from those changes."
Then there are SBA critics like Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who, as chairman of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, contends the agency, under President George W. Bush, has lost its relevance as a small business ally.
"Because of insufficient funding and little oversight, the SBA has failed small businesses time and time again," Kerry says. While the Bush administration touts itself as pro-business, "they've used their final year in office to put forth a  budget that would cut the SBA's funding by nearly 30 percent from when they took control, raised the fee on its largest loan program, and are doing little to help underserved entrepreneurs in the midst of a nationwide economic crisis."
To say SBA programs are embattled is an understatement. No federal agency has endured deeper budget cuts under Bush's watch, Kerry says.
Acting administrator Sandy K. Baruah, who was appointed by Bush this summer, has not been confirmed by Congress and is likely keeping the chair warm for whomever the next president appoints to the post.
Meanwhile, the agency remains a scapegoat for what critics like Kerry and Lloyd Chapman, president of the Small Business League of America, claim is outright neglect of small business by the Bush administration.
Then there are the lawsuits, some of which stem from allegations that under the SBA's watch, a significant percentage of federal small business contracts have been wrongfully diverted to major corporations via their smaller subsidiaries.
"The SBA has faltered time and time again in guaranteeing [small businesses] equal access to [government] contracts," Kerry says.
The agency has also had to deal with unfavorable attention for its sluggish performance during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Those issues apparently took an internal toll. A 2006 government audit placed the SBA last among 30 federal agencies for worker morale.
To Chapman, whose legal clashes with the SBA and the Bush administration are extensive and ongoing, these are signs of an agency that, after 55 years, is headed toward marginalization, if not outright dismantlement.
"George Bush intends to starve the SBA to death," he says, "and end all programs for the little guy."
Soon, however, the fate of the SBA will rest in the hands of Bush's successor in the White House. Whether that's Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama, Kerry says one of the top SBA-related issues on his agenda when Congress reconvenes in early 2009 is to strengthen programs aimed at groups he claims have been underserved by the agency: minorities, veterans, rural and urban firms, and women.
Procurement rules adopted recently by SBA, he says, "have seriously harmed women-owned firms." Another of Kerry's priorities is to expand small business access to affordable credit by lowering the fees associated with SBA's 7(a) and 504 loan programs, the largest sources for long-term small business financing. Chapman, like Kerry, says it's also vital to halt the alleged diversion of small business contracts to Fortune 500 companies.
To accomplish all that, Chapman says the SBA needs a major funding infusion. Depending on the source, the agency's core budget has either remained stable (as Rushton claims) or been slashed by anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent (as Kerry and Chapman contend) during Bush's two terms as president.
The Bush administration's core budget request for the SBA in 2009 is $382 million, according to Rushton. For the SBA to again be a force on behalf of small business, that figure needs to be closer to $5 billion, Chapman says.
Does an agency that is clearly in flux have the wherewithal to help the "little guy" with loans and other forms of support that many of them desperately need in today's turbulent economic environment? Rushton says so. Thanks to reforms at the agency, he says, SBA loan programs are now more efficient and accessible. Entrepreneurs can tap the basic 7(a) program for loans of up to $2 million and the 504 program for loans of up to $4 million (the latter is focused on fixed-asset loans for larger capital improvements). Meanwhile, he counts other, more targeted programs such as the Patriot Express loan initiative for veterans, as among the SBA's recent successes.
Also new at SBA are the Emerging 200 initiative to help inner city small businesses grow, and the Small/Rural Lender Advantage initiative, which is designed to make it easier for small and rural lending institutions to participate in SBA loan programs.
With change coming in Washington, and atop the SBA, time will tell whether those programs--and the SBA itself--will flourish in years to come.
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories on the SBA. Come back Nov. 26 for the next installment.
SBA Access Guide
The SBA is active in four core areas: underwriting and dispensing loans, counseling, disaster programs, and assisting small businesses in securing government contracts. Here are some key SBA offices and programs relevant to entrepreneurs:
- SBA Office of Entrepreneurial Development.
- Small Business Development Centers, a public-private network offering management assistance to current and prospective small-business owners.
- SBA loan guaranty programs.
- Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) , in partnership with SBA, offers counseling and training to small businesses.
- SBA Office of Women's Business Ownership, support for female entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses.
- Federal Business Opportunities, a clearinghouse for commercial vendors and government buyers to post, search, monitor and retrieve business opportunities.
- Guidance on government contracting opportunities.
- SBA Small Business Planner, a comprehensive guide to the entire business cycle, from start-up to exit planning.
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.