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DBE Final Rule: Key Points

Key Points of the Final Rule

This discussion reviews and responds to the SNPRM comments and the Congressional debates on certain key issues. Congressional debate references are to the Congressional Record for March 5 and 6, 1998, for the Senate debate and April 1, 1998, for the House debate, unless otherwise noted.

Quotas and Set-Asides

SNPRM Comments

Most comments on this issue came from non-DBE contractors, who argued that the program was a de facto quota program. Many of these contractors said that recipients insisted that they meet numerical goals regardless of other considerations, and that the recipients did not take showings of good faith efforts seriously. Some non-DBE contractor organizations argued, in addition, that the program was a quota program because it was based on a statute that had a 10 percent target for the use of businesses defined by a racial classification.

Congressional Debate

Opponents of the DBE program generally asserted that it created quotas or set-asides. Senator McConnell described the entire program, particularly the provision that not less than 10 percent of authorized funds go to DBEs, as a $17.3 billion quota. In other words, if the government decides that you are the preferred race and gender, then you are able to compete for $17.3 billion of taxpayer-funded highway contracts. But, if you are the wrong race and gender, then--too bad--you can't compete for that $17 billion pot. (S1936).

The not less than 10 percent language also led opponents, such as Senator Ashcroft, to label the program a set-aside, (S1405), a term also employed in testimony provided by a law professor from California who said that the statute imposes a set-aside that's required regardless of the availability of race-neutral solutions. (S1407). Senator Gorton said that the DBE statute provides that ``those not defined as disadvantaged in our society are absolutely barred and prohibited from getting certain governmental contracts.'' (S1415).

On the other hand, supporters of the program were adamant that it was not a quota program. Senator Baucus argued that the program, as implemented by DOT, allows substantial flexibility to recipients and contractors. Recipients could have an overall goal other than 10 percent under current rules, he pointed out. Senator Kerry of Massachusetts added that what the statute does is to ``set a national goal. And it is appropriate in this country to set national goals for what we will do to try to break down the walls of discrimination. (S1408). He also alluded to the flexibility of the Secretary to permit overall goals of less than 10 percent. Senator Robb stated:

I want to stress at the outset that this program is not a "quota program," as some have suggested. There is a great difference [between] an aspirational goal and a rigid numerical requirement. Quotas utilize rigid numerical requirements as a means of implementing a program. The DBE program uses aspirational goals. (S1425).

With respect to individual contract goals, Senator Baucus said, "once a goal is established for a contract, each contractor must make a good-faith effort to meet the goal--not mathematically required, not quota required, but a good faith effort to meet it." (S1402). Senator Baucus pointed to provisions of the SNPRM concerning overall goals, means of meeting them, and good-faith efforts as further narrowly tailoring the program. The SNPRM confirms, he said, that "contract goals are not binding. If a contractor makes good faith efforts to find qualified women or minority-owned subcontractors, but fails to meet the goal, there is no penalty." (S1403). Senator Robb added that "Contract goals are not operated as quotas because they require that the prime contractor make good faith efforts to find DBEs. If a prime contractor cannot find qualified and competitive DBEs, the goal can be waived." (S1425).

One of the Senators who addressed the quota/set-side issue in the most detail was Senator Domenici. He concluded that "I do not agree that this minority business program we have in this ISTEA bill before us is a program that mandates quotas and mandates set-asides." (S1426). He made this statement, in part, on the basis of March 5, 1998, letter to him signed by Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater and Attorney General Janet Reno. In relevant part, this letter (which Senator Domenici inserted into the record) read as follows:

The 10 percent figure contained in the statute is not a mandatory set aside or rigid quota. First, the statute explicitly provides that the Secretary of Transportation may waive the goal for any reason * * * Second, in no way is the 10 percent figure imposed on any state or locality * * * Moreover, state agencies are permitted to waive goals when achievement on a particular contract or even for a specific year is not possible. The DBE program does not set aside a certain percentage of contracts or dollars for a specific set of contractors. Nor does the DBE program require recipients to use set-asides. The DBE program is a goals program which encourages participation without imposing rigid requirements of any type. Neither the Department's current nor proposed regulations permit the use of quotas. The DBE program does not use any rigid numerical requirements that would mandate a fixed number of dollars or contracts for DBEs. (S1427).

The debate in the House proceeded in similar terms. Opponents of the DBE program, such as Representative Roukema (H2000), Representative Cox (H2004) and Speaker Gingrich (H2009) said the legislation constituted a quota, while proponents, such as Representatives Tauscher (H2001), Poshard (H2003), Bonior (H2004) and Menendez (H2004) said the program did not involve quotas or set-asides.

DOT Response

The DOT DBE program is not a quota or set-aside program, and it is not intended to operate as one. To make this point unmistakably clear, the Department has added explicitly worded new or amended provisions to the rule.

Section 26.41 makes clear that the 10 percent statutory goal contained in ISTEA and TEA-21 is an aspirational goal at the national level. It does not set any funds aside for any person or group. It does not require any recipient or contractor to have 10 percent (or any other percentage) DBE goals or participation. Unlike former part 23, it does not require recipients to take any special administrative steps (e.g., providing a special justification to DOT) if their annual overall goal is less than 10 percent. Recipients must set goals consistent with their own circumstances (see Sec. 26.45). There is no direct link between the national 10 percent aspirational goal and the way a recipient operates its program. The Department will use the 10 percent goal as a means of evaluating the overall performance of the DBE program nationwide. For example, if nationwide DBE participation were to drop precipitously, the Department would reevaluate its efforts to ensure nondiscriminatory access to DOT-assisted contracting opportunities.

Section 26.43 states flatly that recipients are prohibited from using quotas under any circumstances. The section also prohibits set- asides except in the most extreme circumstances where no other approach could be expected to redress egregious discrimination. Section 26.45 makes clear that in setting overall goals, recipients aspire to achieving only the amount of DBE participation that would be obtained in a nondiscriminatory market. Recipients are not to simply pick a number representing a policy objective or responding to any particular constituency.

Section 26.53 also outlines what bidders must do to be responsive and responsible on DOT-assisted contracts having contract goals. They must make good faith efforts to meet these goals. Bidders can meet this requirement either by having enough DBE participation to meet the goal or by documenting good faith efforts, even if those efforts did not actually achieve the goal. These means of meeting contract goal requirements are fully equivalent. Recipients are prohibited from denying a contract to a bidder simply because it did not obtain enough DBE participation to meet the goal. Recipients must seriously consider bidders' documentation of good faith efforts. To make certain that bidders' showings are taken seriously, the rule requires recipients to offer administrative reconsideration to bidders whose good faith efforts showings are initially rejected. These provisions leave no room for doubt: there is no place for quotas in the DOT DBE program. In the Department's oversight, we will take care to ensure that recipients implement the program consistent with the intent of Congress and these regulatory prohibitions.

SNPRM Comments

The issue of sanctions for recipients who fail to meet overall goals was not a subject of comments on the SNPRM. Since the Department has never imposed such sanctions, this absence of comment is not surprising.

Congressional Debate

DBE program opponents asserted, in connection with their argument that the DBE program is a quota program, that the Department could impose sanctions for failure to meet goals. ``The goals have requirements and the real threat of sanctions,'' Senator McConnell said. (S1488). Citing a provision of a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) manual saying that if ``a state has violated or failed to comply with Federal laws or * * * regulations,'' FHWA could withhold Federal funding, Senator McConnell said,

In other words, there are sanctions. The same threats appear in the Federal Transportation regulations. When the Federal government is wielding that kind of weapon from on high, it does not have to punish them. A 10 percent quota is still a quota, even if the States always comply and no one is formally punished. (Id.)

Defenders of the DBE program pointed out that the Department had never punished a recipient for failing to meet an overall goal (e.g., Rep. Tauscher, H2001; Senator Boxer, S1433). Senator Domenici asked Secretary Slater and Attorney General Reno whether there are sanctions, penalties, or fines that may be (or ever have been) imposed on a recipient who does not meet DBE program goals. He entered the following reply in the record:

No state has ever been sanctioned by DOT for not meeting its goals. Nothing in the statute or regulations imposes sanctions on any state recipient that has attempted in good faith, but failed, to meet its self-imposed goals. (S1427).

Senator Lieberman added that if states fail to meet their own goals, ``there is no Federal sanction or enforcement mechanism.'' (S1493).

DOT Response

The Department has never sanctioned a recipient for failing to meet an overall goal. We do not intend to do so. To eliminate any confusion, we have added a new provision (Sec. 26.47) that explicitly states that a recipient cannot be penalized, or treated by the Department as being in noncompliance with the rule, simply because its DBE participation falls short of its overall goal. For example, if a recipient's overall goal is 12 percent, and its participation is 8 percent, the Department cannot and will not penalize the recipient simply because its actual DBE participation rate was less than its goal.

Overall goals are not quotas, and the Department does not sanction recipients because their participation levels fall short of their overall goals. Of course, if a recipient does not have a DBE program, does not set a DBE goal, does not implement its DBE program in good faith, or discriminates in the way it operates its program, it can be found in noncompliance. But its noncompliance would never be having failed to "make a number."

SNPRM Comments

Some commenters favored eliminating the presumption of economic disadvantage, saying that applicants should have to prove their economic disadvantage. Other commenters favored obtaining additional financial information from applicants so that, even if the presumption remained in force, recipients would have a better idea of whether applicants really were disadvantaged. The question of the standard for determining disadvantage generated substantial comment, with some commenters favoring, and others objecting to, the proposed use of a personal net worth standard to assist recipients in determining whether an applicant was economically disadvantaged. There was also disagreement among commenters concerning the level at which such a standard should be set (e.g., $750,000, or something higher or lower). These comments, and the Department's response to them, are further discussed in the section-by-section analysis for Sec. 26.67.

Congressional Debate

The Congress debated the topic of who is regarded as economically disadvantaged under the statute. DBE opponents, including Senators Ashcroft (S1405) and McConnell (S1418) and Representative Cox (H2004), asserted that outrageously rich people could be eligible to participate as DBEs, frequently using the Sultan of Brunei as an example. The basic thrust of their argument was that if the program does not exclude wealthy members of the designated groups-- meaning those who are not, in fact, disadvantaged--then it is "overinclusive" and therefore not narrowly tailored. Senator McConnell added that, because the Department's SNPRM did not include a specific dollar amount for a cap on personal net worth, it would not be effective. (S1486). On the other hand, DBE program supporters cited the SNPRM's proposed net worth cap as an effective device to stop wealthy people from participating in the program. These included Minority Leader Daschle (with a reference to a letter from the Associate Attorney General, S1413), Senator Baucus (S1414, S1423), Senator Lieberman (S1493), Senator Boxer (S1433), and Senator Moseley-Braun, who responded to the Sultan of Brunei example by noting that the program was directed primarily at U.S. citizens (S1420).

DOT Response

The final rule (Sec. 26.67) specifically imposes a personal net worth cap of $750,000. This means that, regardless of race, gender or the size of their business, any individual whose personal net worth exceeds $750,000 is not considered economically disadvantaged and is not eligible for the DBE program. The provision also makes it much easier for recipients to determine whether an individual's net worth exceeds the cap. Applicants will have to submit a statement of personal net worth and supporting documentation to the recipient with their applications. If the information shows net worth above the cap, the recipient would rebut the presumption based on the information in the application itself and the individual would not be eligible for the program. In such a case, it would not be necessary for a third party to challenge the economic disadvantage of an applicant in order to rebut the presumption. While there have been very few documented cases of wealthy individuals seeking to take advantage of the Department's program, the revised provisions of part 26 virtually eliminate even the possibility of this type of abuse.

SNPRM Comments

A few commenters suggested that the presumption of social disadvantage, as well as that of economic disadvantage, be eliminated, so that applicants would have to demonstrate both elements of disadvantage. Any presumption of disadvantage tied to a racial classification, in the view of some of these commenters, undermined the constitutionality of the program. Other commenters noted that persons who are not members of the presumptively disadvantaged groups can be eligible and, in some cases, suggested that the criteria for evaluating such applications be clarified.

Congressional Debate

The presumption of social disadvantage drew fire from DBE program opponents because it was allegedly overinclusive. For example, Senator McConnell produced a map illustrating the over 100 countries of origin leading to inclusion in one of the presumed socially disadvantaged groups, pointing out that people from some countries (e.g., Pakistan) are presumed to be socially disadvantaged while those from other countries (e.g., Poland) are not. (S1418). Senator McConnell said that there was no basis for selecting this definition over any other. (Id.) Senator Hatch also listed the countries from which Asian-Pacific Americans and Subcontinent Asian- Americans can originate, suggesting that it was inappropriate to create "all kinds of special interest groups who are vying for these programs." (S1411).

DBE proponents responded that discrimination against minorities and women in general, and against specific minorities in particular (e.g., African Americans) was very real and formed a basis for the presumption of social disadvantage (see discussion below concerning the existence of discrimination). Senator Baucus also noted that this presumption could be overcome. (S1402).

Opponents also charged that the presumption of social disadvantage was underinclusive; that is, "you underinclude people who have a right to be included in the bid process." (Senator McConnell, S1399). The people who are not included who have a right to be, in the view of opponents, are white males (e.g., Senator Sessions' reference to testimony from Adarand Constructors' owner, S1400). Senator Kennedy disagreed with this assertion, saying

Of course, this program doesn't just help women and minorities. It extends a helping hand to firms owned by white males, as well. They can be certified to [participate] if they prove that they have been disadvantaged. Just ask Randy Pech--owner of the Adarand Construction Firm--because he is currently seeking certification. (S1482).

Senator Domenici was interested in the same question, and entered into the record the following response from Secretary Slater and Attorney General Reno:

Any individual owning a business may demonstrate that he is socially and economically disadvantaged, even if that individual is not a woman or a minority. Both the current and proposed regulations provide detailed guidance to recipients to assist them in making individual determinations of disadvantaged status. And, in fact, businesses owned by white males have qualified for DBE status. (S1427).

DOT Response

By having passed the DBE statutory provision, after lengthy and specific debate, Congress has once again determined that members of the designated groups should be presumed socially disadvantaged. All of these groups are specifically incorporated by reference in the legislation that Congress debated and approved. This presumption (i.e., a determination that it is not necessary for group members to prove individually that they have been the subject of discrimination or disadvantage) is based on the understanding of Members of Congress about the discrimination that members of these groups have faced. The presumption is rebuttable in the DOT program. If a recipient or third party determines that there is a reasonable basis for concluding that an individual from one of the designated groups is not socially disadvantaged, it can pursue a proceeding under Sec. 26.87 to remove the presumption. Likewise, a white male, or anyone else who is not presumed to be disadvantaged, can make an individual showing of social and economic disadvantage and participate in the program on the same basis as any other disadvantaged individual (see Sec. 26.67).

SNPRM Comments

Non-DBE contractors expressed concern that a variety of provisions under the program and the SNPRM adversely affected the low-bid system, including contract goals, evaluation credits, and good faith efforts guidance concerning prime contractors' handling of subcontractor prices and consideration of other bidders' success in meeting goals.

Congressional Debate

Opponents of the DBE program assert that the program results in white male contractors not receiving contracts they would otherwise expect to receive. Senator Sessions cited the statement of the Adarand company to this effect. (S1400). Senator Ashcroft said that "if two bids come in from two subcontractors, one owned by a white male and the other by a racial minority, and the bids are the same, or even close, the job will go to the minority-owned company, not the low bidder." (S1405). Senator Gorton inserted into the record letters from a Spokane subcontractor asserting that, in a number of cases, it had lost subcontracts to DBE firms despite having a lower quote. (S1415-16). Representative Roukema also cited examples of firms who made similar assertions. (H2000).

In contrast, DBE program proponents argued that the program was about leveling the playing field for DBEs. Senator Moseley-Braun cited letters from her constituents for the point that,

...the DBE program is not about taking away contracts from qualified male-owned businesses and handing them over to unqualified female-owned firms. The program is not about denying contracts to Caucasian low bidders in favor of higher bids that happen to have been submitted by Hispanics or African Americans or Asians or women. (S1420).

Without such a program, her constituents' letters said, they would lose the chance to compete. (Id.). Citing testimony from a Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Kennedy noted that it was the experience of some DBEs that white male prime contractors had accepted higher bids from other firms to avoid working with DBEs. (S1430).

Why would a general contractor accept a higher bid? It doesn't make sense unless you remember that the traditional business network doesn't include women or minorities * * * [A woman business owner testified] that some general contractors would rather lose money than deal with female contractors. (Id.)

DOT Response

For the most part, statutory low-bid requirements exist only at the prime contracting level. That is, state and local governments, in awarding prime contracts, must select the low bidder in many procurements (there may be exceptions in some types of purchases). Nothing in this regulation requires, under any circumstances, a recipient to accept a higher bid for a prime contract from a DBE when a non-DBE has presented a lower bid. This rule does not interfere with recipients' implementation of state and local low-bid legislation.

The selection of subcontractors by a prime contractor is typically not subject to any low-bid requirements under state or local law. Prime contractors have unfettered discretion to select any subcontractor they wish. Price is clearly a key factor, but nothing legally compels a prime contractor to hire the subcontractor who makes the lowest quote. Other factors, such as the prime contractor's familiarity and experience with a subcontractor, the quality of a subcontractor's work, the word-of-mouth reputation of the subcontractor in the prime contracting community, or the prime's comfort or discomfort with dealing with a particular subcontractor can be as or more important than price in some situations. It is in this context that Sec. 26.53 requires that prime contractors make good faith efforts to achieve DBE contract goals. The rule does not require that recipients ignore price or quality, let alone obtain a certain amount of DBE participation without regard to other considerations. The good faith efforts requirements are intended to ensure that prime contractors cannot simply refuse to consider qualified, competitive DBE subcontractors. At the same time, the good faith efforts waiver of contract goals serves as a safeguard to ensure that prime contractors will not be forced into accepting an unreasonable or excessive quote from a DBE subcontractor.

SNPRM Comments

Non-DBE contractors and their groups argued that the SNPRM proposals, particularly with respect to overall goals and the use of race-conscious measures, failed to meet the Adarand narrow tailoring test. Many of these commenters said that the overall goals were suspect because they did not adequately consider the capacity of DBEs to perform contracts and Adarand requires that race-conscious measures may be used only after a recipient has demonstrated that race- neutral means have failed. The use of presumptions based on racial classifications was viewed as intrinsically unconstitutional by these commenters, many of whom cited the language of Judge Kane's decision in the Adarand remand to this effect. Some commenters also contended that, absent recipient-specific findings of compelling need, the program could not be constitutional. They said that existing information alleging compelling interest--such as various disparity studies or information compiled by the Department of Justice--was inadequate to meet the compelling interest test. DBEs and recipients who commented defended the constitutionality of the program, often citing experience with discrimination in the marketplace and contending that the SNPRM succeeded in narrowly tailoring the program.

Congressional Debate

Proponents and opponents of the DBE program extensively debated the constitutionality of the DBE statutory provision and the entire DBE program. Generally, opponents argued that the Supreme Court and District Court decisions in Adarand rendered the program unconstitutional, while proponents said that the decisions did not have that effect.

Proponents and opponents of the DBE program agreed that the Supreme Court's Adarand decision established a two-part test for the constitutionality of a program that uses a racial classification. The program must be based on a compelling governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to further that interest (e.g., Senator McConnell, S1396; Senator Baucus, S1403). Opponents relied on the finding of a Colorado district court on remand that the program was not narrowly tailored and was thus unconstitutional (Senator McConnell, S 1396; Senator Ashcroft, S1405). Proponents replied that the remand decision represented the views of only one district court (Senator Baucus, S1403), that it failed to properly apply the reasoning of the Supreme Court decision with respect to narrow tailoring (Senator Domenici, S1425), and that the Department's forthcoming regulations would ensure that the program was narrowly tailored (see discussion below).

Proponents (and some opponents) of the DBE provision said that discrimination and/or disadvantage with respect to minorities and/or women persists. In the House, these included Representative Roukema (H2000-01), Representative Norton (H2003), Representative Poshard (H2003), Representative Menendez (H2004), Representative Davis of Illinois (H2005), Representative Boswell (H2005), Representative Lampson (H2006), Representative Kennedy (H2006), Representative Jackson-Lee (H2006), Representative Edwards (H2007), Representative Andrews (H2007), Representative Rodriguez (H2008), Representative Towns (H2010), Representative Dixon (H2010), and Representative Millender-McDonald (H2011). DBE opponents typically remained silent on this point, neither affirming nor denying the existence of discrimination against women and minorities.

There was a similar pattern in the Senate debates. Opponents typically did not address the present existence of discrimination or disadvantage with respect to minorities and women or its continuing effects, spoke of such discrimination as something that existed in the past (Senator Sessions, S1399; Senator Hatch, S1411), or asserted that race-based disadvantage or discrimination no longer exists (Senator Ashcroft, S1406).

The Senators who said that such discrimination persists included Senator Baucus (S1403, S1413, S1496), Senator Warner (S1403), Senator Kerry (S1408), Senator Wellstone (S1410), Senator Moseley-Braun (S1419- 20), Senator Robb (S1422); Senator Brownback (S1423-24), Senator Domenici (S1425-26), Senator Kennedy (S1429-30, S1482), Senator Specter (S1485), Senator McCain (S1489), Senator Lautenberg (S1490), Senator Durbin (S1491), Senator Daschle (S1492), Senator Lieberman (S1493), Senator Bingaman (S1494), Senator Murray (S1495), and Senator Dorgan (S1495).

In comments on the passage of the TEA-21 conference report in the Senate, Senator Chafee noted a Colorado Department of Transportation disparity study that found a disproportionately small number of women- and minority-owned contractors participating in that state's highway construction industry. More than 99 percent of contracts went to firms owned by white men. (Congressional Record, May 22, 1998; S5413). In the House discussion of the conference report, Representative Norton presented an extensive summary of relevant evidence of discrimination forming the basis for a compelling need for the DBE program. (H3957).

Throughout the debate, the Members who affirmed the existence of discrimination and/or disadvantage asserted a number of factual bases for concluding that the DBE program was necessary. This information is largely drawn from the Senate debate; the briefer House debate contains less detail.

Senator Baucus cited disparities between the earnings of women and men and between the percentage of small businesses women own and the percentage of Federal procurement dollars they receive. He also noted that minorities make up 20 percent of the population, own 9 percent of construction businesses, and get only 4 percent of construction receipts. (S1403). Finally, Senator Baucus, via a letter from the Associate Attorney General, cited to numerous Congressional findings concerning the effects of discrimination in the construction industry and in DOT-assisted programs. (S1413).

Senator Kerry added that women own 9.2 percent of the nation's construction firms but their companies earn only about half of what is earned by male-owned firms. (S1409). Senator Robb commented that the evidence of racially based disadvantage is ``compelling and disturbing.'' He continued, stating that, ``White- owned construction firms receive 50 times as many loan dollars as African-American owned firms that have identical equity.'' (S1422). Senator Kennedy said that the playing field for women and minorities and other victims of discrimination was still not level. Job discrimination against minorities and the ``glass ceiling'' for women still persisted, he said, adding that ``Nowhere is the deck stacked more heavily against women and minorities than in the construction industry.'' (S1429). He cited a number of instances in which minority or female contractors encountered overt discrimination in trying to get work. (S1429-30).

Senator Lautenberg said that, for transportation-related contracts, minority-owned firms get only 61 cents for every dollar of work that white male-owned businesses receive. The comparable figure for women- owned firms was 48 cents. He also mentioned that ``women-owned businesses have a lower rate of loan delinquency, yet still have far greater difficulty in obtaining loans.'' (S1490). He then spoke of the continuing effects of past discrimination:

Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books over 30 years ago. However, their pernicious effects on the construction industry remain. Transportation construction has historically relied on the old boy network which, until the last decade, was almost exclusively a white, old boy network. This is an industry that relies heavily on business friendships and relationships established decades, sometimes generations, ago--years before minority-owned firms were even allowed to compete. (Id.)

Senator Durbin referred to recent studies concerning job bias against minorities and women. (S1491). Senator Lieberman referred generally to previous Congressional committee findings and testimony concerning still-existing barriers to full participation for minorities and women. (S1493). He also cited the May 1996 Department of Justice survey of discrimination and its effects in business and contracting. He referred to a recent study in Denver showing that African Americans were 3 times, and Hispanics 1.5 times, more likely than whites to be rejected for business loans. Senator Daschle summed up by saying, "t]here is clearly a compelling interest in addressing the pervasive discrimination that has characterized the highway construction industry." (S1492).

Throughout the portion of the debate described above, many of the Members stressed that goal-based programs like the DBE program were the only effective way to combat the continuing effects of discrimination.

Senator Baucus cited the experience of Michigan, in which DBE participation in the state-funded portion of the highway program fell to zero in a nine-month period after the state terminated its DBE program, while the Federal DBE program in Michigan was able to maintain 12.7 percent participation. (S1404). Senator Kerry also raised the Michigan example, and went on to cite similar sharp decreases in DBE participation when Louisiana, Hillsborough County, Florida, and San Jose, California, eliminated affirmative action programs covering state- and locally-funded programs. Senator Kerry asked rhetorically:

is that just the economy of our country speaking, an economy at one moment that is capable of having 12 percent and at another moment, where they lose the incentive to do so, to drop down to zero, to drop down by 99 percent, to drop down by 80 percent, to have .4 at the State level while at the Federal level there are 12 percent? You could not have a more compelling interest if you tried. (S1409-10).

Senator Moseley-Braun added the examples of Arizona, Arkansas, Rhode Island, and Delaware to the jurisdictions cited by other members where state-funded projects without a DBE program have significantly less DBE participation than Federally funded projects subject to the DBE program. She added, ``Where there are no DBE programs, women- and minority-owned small businesses are shut out of highway construction.'' (S1420-21). Senator Kennedy added Nebraska, Missouri, Tampa and Philadelphia to the list of jurisdictions that experienced precipitous drops in DBE participation after goals programs ended. (S1429-30; S1482). He also cited comments from DBE companies that goal programs were needed to surmount discrimination-related barriers. (S1482). Senator Domenici repeated many of the same points as previous DBE proponents concerning the basis for concluding that the program was needed (S1426), as did Senator Kempthorne. (S1494).

Senator Robb emphasized that the DBE program was essential to combating discrimination and ensuring economic opportunity, explicitly linking the fall-off in DBE participation to continuing discrimination:

Where DBE programs at the State level have been eliminated, participation by qualified women and qualified minorities in government transportation contracts has plummeted. There is no way to know whether this discrimination is intentional or subconscious, but the effect is the same. This experience demonstrates the sad but inescapable truth that, when it comes to providing economic opportunities to women and minorities, passivity equals inequality. (S1422).

Narrow tailoring

DBE proponents cited the Department's proposed DBE rule as the vehicle that would ensure that the DBE program would be narrowly tailored. They cited features of the SNPRM including a new mechanism for calculation of overall goals, giving priority to race-neutral measures in meeting goals, a greater emphasis on good faith efforts, DBE diversification, added flexibility for recipients, net worth provisions, ability to challenge presumptions of social and economic disadvantage, and flexibility in goal-setting. In comments on the Senate consideration of the TEA-21 conference report, Senator Baucus concluded by saying:

As I explained in my statements during the debate on the McConnell amendment * * * the program is narrowly tailored, both under the current and the new regulations, which emphasize flexible goals tied to the capacity of firms in the local market, the use of race-neutral measures, and the appropriate use of waivers for good faith efforts. (Congressional Record, May 22, 1998; S5414).

Following Senator Baucus' remarks, Senator Chafee, Chairman of the committee of jurisdiction, requested that he be associated with Senator Baucus' remarks on constitutionality. (S5414).

DBE opponents denied that regulatory change could result in a narrowly tailored program. Senator Smith said ``The administration's attempt to comply with the Court's decision by fiddling around with the DOT regulations does not meet the constitutional litmus test.'' (S1398). The most frequent argument against the efficacy of regulatory change was that a racial classification is inherently unable to be narrowly tailored. (Senator Sessions, S1399-1400; Senator Ashcroft, S1407).

DOT Response

The 1998 debate over DBE legislation was the most thorough in which Congress has engaged since the beginning of the program. The record of this debate clearly supports the Department's view that there is a compelling governmental interest in remedying discrimination and its effects in DOT-assisted contracting. Congress clearly determined that real, pervasive, and injurious discrimination exists. Congress backed up that determination with reference to a wide range of factual material, including private and public contracting, DOT-assisted and state-and locally-funded programs and the financing of the contracting industry. By retaining the DBE statutory provisions against this factual background, Congress clearly found that there was a compelling governmental interest in having the program.

The courts, including the court in the Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Pena, 965 F.Supp. 1556 (D. Colo., 1997) and the court in In re: Sherbrooke Sodding, 6-96-CV-41 (D. Minn. 1998), agree that Congress has the power to legislate on a nationwide basis to address nationwide problems. Congress has a unique role as the national legislature to look at the whole of the United States for the basis to find a compelling governmental interest supporting the use of race-based remedies. Congress is not required to make particularized findings of discrimination in individual localities to which a nationwide program may apply. Nor is Congress required to find that the Federal government itself has discriminated before applying a race-conscious remedy. (Id. at 1573).

Having reviewed the extensive evidence of discrimination and its relationship to DOT-assisted contracting, the District Court in Adarand determined that current and previous DBE provisions were a ``considered response by Congress to the effects of discrimination on the ability of minorities to participate in the mainstream of federal contracting.'' (Id. at 1576). The court stated that ``Congress has a strong basis in evidence for enacting the challenged statutes, which thus serve a "compelling governmental interest. (Id. at 1577). The extensive Congressional debate and information supporting the enactment of the 1998 DBE provision significantly strengthens the existing basis for declaring that this program serves a compelling governmental interest.

The basis for District Court's view that the program at issue in Adarand is unconstitutional is stated most clearly in the following passage:

Contrary to the [Supreme] Court's pronouncement that strict scrutiny is not `fatal in fact,' I find it difficult to envisage a race-based classification that is narrowly tailored. By its very nature, such [a] program is both underinclusive and overinclusive. (Id. at 1580).

By underinclusive, the court said it meant that Caucasians and members of non-designated minority groups are excluded. By overinclusive, it said it meant that all the members of the designated groups are presumed to be economically and/or socially disadvantaged, without Congress having inquired whether a particular entity seeking a racial preference has suffered from the effects of past discrimination (citing the Supreme Court's Croson decision, which concerned the powers of state and local governments to use race-based remedies). (Id.)

As Senator Domenici pointed out (S1425), the key words in the District Court's opinion are ``Contrary to the [Supreme] Court's pronouncement. * * *'' The District Court's analysis departs markedly from the controlling decision of the Supreme Court on this issue (Adarand v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200 (1995)). The Supreme Court's language with which the District Court disagreed is the following:

Finally, we wish to dispel the notion that strict scrutiny is ``strict in theory, but fatal in fact.'' [citation omitted] The unhappy persistence of both the practice and the lingering effects of racial discrimination against minority groups in this country is an unfortunate reality, and government is not disqualified from acting in response to it * * * When race-based action is necessary to further a compelling interest, such action is within constitutional constraints if it satisfies the ``narrow tailoring'' test this Court has set out in previous cases. (515 U.S. at 237).

The Supreme Court evidently considers the ``not fatal in fact'' language to have continuing vitality, having cited it in a subsequent case (U.S. v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, note 6 (1996)).

Under the District Court's analysis, Congress could never use a race-based classification, no matter how compelling the need, because any such classification would intrinsically fail to be narrowly tailored. This approach effectively moots the determination of whether there is a compelling governmental interest. The Supreme Court's approach, by contrast, permits a racial classification to be used, given the existence of a compelling interest, if it is narrowly tailored.

What is the test for narrow tailoring? As set forth in United States v. Paradise, 480 U.S. 149, 171 (1987), the test includes several factors: ``the necessity for relief and the efficacy of alternative remedies; the flexibility and duration of the relief, including the availability of waiver provisions; the relationship of the goals to the relevant labor market; and the impact of the relief on the rights of third parties.'' In Adarand, the Supreme Court specifically invited inquiry into whether there was any consideration of the use of race- neutral means to increase minority business participation (related to the efficacy of alternative remedies) and whether the program was appropriately limited so that it will not last longer than the discrimination it is designed to eliminate (related to the duration of relief). (515 U.S. at 238).

This final rule successfully addresses each element of this test:

  • The necessity of relief

    Throughout the debate on the compelling governmental interest, the bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress repeatedly described the necessity of the DBE program's goal-based approach to remedying the effects of discrimination in DOT-assisted contracting. The most significant evidence demonstrating the necessity of a goal-oriented program is the evidence cited of the fall-off in DBE participation in state contracting when goal-oriented programs end, compared to participation rates in the Federal DBE program.

  • Efficacy of alternative remedies

    This element of the narrow tailoring standard is related to the Supreme Court's inquiry concerning race-neutral programs. Under Sec. 26.51 of this rule, recipients are required to meet the maximum feasible portion of their overall goals by using race-neutral measures. Recipients are not required to have contract goals on each contract. Instead, they are instructed to use contract goals only for any portion of their overall goal they cannot meet through race-neutral measures. Contract goals are intended as a safety net to be used when race-neutral means are not effective to ensure that a recipient can achieve ``level playing field.'' Moreover, the regulations provide that recipients must reduce the use of contract goals when other means are sufficient to meet their overall goals. This ensures that race-conscious relief is used only to the extent necessary and is replaced by race-neutral as quickly as possible.

  • Flexibility of relief

    Flexibility is built into the program in a variety of ways. Recipients set their own goals, based on local market conditions; their goals are not imposed by the federal government nor do recipients have to tie them to any uniform national percentage. (Sec. 26.45). Recipients also choose their own method for goal setting and can choose to base the goal on the evidence that they believe best reflects their market conditions. (Sec. 26.45). Recipients have broad discretion to choose whether or not to use a goal on any given contract, and if they do choose to use a contract goal, they are free to set it at any level they believe is appropriate for the type and location of the specific work involved. (Sec. 26.51). The rule also ensures flexibility for contractors by requiring that any contract goal be waived entirely for a prime contractor that demonstrates that it made good faith efforts but was still unable to meet the goal. (Sec. 26.53). The rule also allows recipients that believe they can achieve equal opportunity for DBEs through different approaches to get waivers releasing them from almost any of the specific requirements of the rule. (Sec. 26.103). Recipients can also get exemptions from the rule if they have unique circumstances that make complying with the rule impractical. (Sec. 26.103).

  • Duration of relief

    The TEA-21 DBE program will end in 2004 unless reauthorized by the Congress. In each successive reauthorization bill for the surface transportation and airport programs, Congress will have the opportunity to examine the current state of transportation contracting and determine whether the DBE program statutes are still necessary to remedy the continuing effects of discrimination. In addition, the duration of relief for individuals and firms are limited by the personal net worth threshold and business size caps. When an individual's personal wealth grows beyond the threshold, he or she will lose the presumption of disadvantage. (Sec. 26.67). Similarly, when a firm's receipts grows beyond the small business size standards, it loses its eligibility to participate in the program. (Sec. 26.65). Finally, to ensure that race-conscious remedies are not used any longer than absolutely necessary, Sec. 26.51 requires recipients to reduce the use of contract goals and rely on race-neutral measures to the extent that they are effective.

  • Relationship of goals to the relevant market

    The overall goal setting provisions of Sec. 26.45 require that recipient set overall goals based on demonstrable evidence of the relative availability of ready, willing and able DBEs in the areas from which each recipient obtains contractors. These provisions ensure that there is as close a fit as possible between the goals set by each recipient and the realities of its relevant market. When a recipient sets contract goals, Sec. 26.51 provides that these goals are to be set realistically in relation to the availability of DBEs for the type and location of work involved.

  • Impact of relief on the rights of third parties

    The legitimate interests of third parties (e.g., prime contractors, non-DBE subcontractors) are only minimally impacted by the DBE program, since the program is aimed at replicating a market in which there are no effects of discrimination and the program affects only a relatively small percentage of total federal-aid funds. The design of the overall and contract goal provisions ensures that the use of race-conscious remedies having the potential to affect the interests of third parties is limited to the extent necessary to counter the effects of discrimination. Individual prime contractors are further protected from suffering any undue burdens by Sec. 26.51, which prevents a prime contractor from losing a contract if it made good faith efforts but was still unable to meet a goal. Non-DBE firms are also protected by Sec. 26.33, which directs recipients to take appropriate steps to address areas of overconcentration of DBE firms in certain types of work that could unduly burden non-DBE firms seeking the same type of work.

  • Inclusion of appropriate beneficiaries

    The certification provisions of Subparts D and E, and particularly the social and economic disadvantage provisions of Sec. 26.67, ensure that only firms owned and controlled by individuals who are in fact socially and economically disadvantaged can participate in the program. Eligibility provisions guard against overinclusiveness by ensuring that individuals with too great net worth are not presumed disadvantaged and by permitting the recipient--on its own initiative or as the result of a complaint--to follow procedures to rebut the presumption of social and/ or economic disadvantage. They guard against underinclusiveness by permitting any business owner, including a white male, to demonstrate social and economic disadvantage on an individual basis.

Last updated: Thursday, June 27, 2013