Q&A: Kerry's Agenda (extended)

A new name and new outlook for the Senate small-biz panel

The Committee on Small Business has never been one of the Senate's highest-profile committees. But that could be about to change. With the Democrats in control, John Kerry (D-Mass.) has replaced Christopher "Kit" Bond as the committee's chairman. A potential presidential candidate in 2004, Kerry is likely to make the most of his newfound bully pulpit.

One of his first acts is indicative of Kerry's approach: Changing the name of the committee from "Small Business" to "Small Business and Entrepreneurship" to reflect a new concern with issues that fall outside the purview of the Small Business Administration. Kerry recently spoke with

BusinessWeek Small Business Editor Kimberly Weisul about the rest of his agenda for the committee at his office in Washington. Here are some edited excerpts from their conversation.

Q: What's your first priority for the committee?

A: The most important thing is for this committee to be a strong advocate for small businesses -- to be there for small business and help create a climate in which people feel they're getting a fair shot at the federal dollar and access to capital. We need to make sure we're leveraging -- to the greatest degree possible, to the most people possible -- the credit that cannot be found elsewhere.

Q: How well is the Small Business Administration doing this?

A: I think they've improved. We're going to continue to be an oversight and accountability engine. There's a lot of lending out there. We're responsible for it. We need to make sure it's being done responsibly. At the same time, we have to recognize the advances that have been made within the SBA. It has streamlined. It has improved its lending practices. It has increased accountability.

Q: What can Congress do to help small business if the minimum wage goes up?

A: We're looking at different concepts. We might give them a break on the capital-expenditures side. Or something that gives them a break on the health-care side.

There's a big question mark as to where the money comes from. The size of the tax bill is so big that it's going to put the squeeze on an enormous number of additional initiatives. The surplus we're looking at for this year has changed -- it's probably around $60 billion. It was around $90 billion. We lost about $12 billion of it to the new economic numbers, and we're going to lose some to the new education bill, and we're going to lose some to some other add-ons.

Q: How can government make health insurance more affordable for small companies?

A: I moved to the finance committee this year specifically because I want to know more about and be able to do something about the health-care issue. I have personally been meeting with physicians, hospital representatives, medical people, etc., to try to understand all of the tensions of the system.

In the meantime, I continue to push for immediate, full deductibility of health-insurance premiums, which I think is critical. We have to find another way to extend coverage to all these people and not, obviously, at the expense of companies that can't afford it.

Q: About two-thirds of venture capital goes to five states. What can be done to help states that don't receive much venture investment?

A: It's not a problem that the federal government necessarily ought to step in and say: "Hey, we're going to start reallocating capital." We're not supposed to pick winners and losers. The government's job is to create a business-friendly framework within which private capital will make its own choice. Those states that have little venture capital need [to] make it attractive for that capital to flow there -- a really well-educated workforce, business siting and zoning laws that are friendly, infrastructure that attracts people. It's not up to us to start monkeying with the capital-allocation process.

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