Washington Report

Updates from Capitol Hill

Square Peg, Round Hole?

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Just when he thought he was almost in, Winslow Sargeant, President Barack  Obama’s nominee for chief counsel in the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, may well be out.

By all accounts, Sargeant—former entrepreneur, researcher at the Small Business Innovation Research program manager turned venture capitalist–is enormously talented. The one thing he’s not, though, is an attorney. This deeply concerns Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), ranking member on the Senate Small Business Committee, so for now, Sargeant is on hold.

The chief counsel’s primary responsibility is to be the regulatory watchdog for small businesses and to protect their interests during the legislative and rulemaking process. Being an attorney isn’t statutorily required, but since the passage of the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which aims to reduce the regulatory burdens on small businesses, many believe it’s become increasingly apparent that it should be.

So why nominate Sargeant in the first place? “Great question,” said a senior Snowe aide, speaking anonymously. “He has a tremendous background and experience, but was miscast for this position. Or, maybe they want to change the office’s focus from its core function to a research function, which is only part of the job.”

The real answer, according to a former SBA official with close ties to the agency, is that agency administrator Karen Mills is the one who chose Sargeant, whom she knows from her venture capitalist past. “Sargeant’s been offered other positions at SBA but hasn’t accepted,” he added, because Mills is really pushing this nomination.

According to conventional wisdom, it won’t move until the healthcare debate has been settled, and how it turns out is anyone’s guess. “This is unchartered territory,” Snowe’s aide said.

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