Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Kingdomware Technologies v. United States. As we’ve noted, this case was a monumental win for veteran-owned small businesses—it requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to set-aside solicitations for SDVOSBs or VOSBs where two or more such offerors will submit a proposal at a fair and reasonable price, even if that solicitation is issued under the Federal Supply Schedule.
A recent GAO decision suggests, however, that Kingdomware’s impact could be felt beyond the world of VA procurements. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s rationale in Kingdomware might compel every agency to set aside any FSS order (or any other order, for that matter) valued between $3,000 and $150,000.
In Aldevra, B-411752.2—Reconsideration (Oct. 5, 2016), the protester relied on Kingdomware to challenge a prior GAO decision that an agency is not required to set-aside an FSS order for small businesses. At issue in the initial protest was an Army National Guard Bureau solicitation under the FSS, seeking an ice machine/water dispenser (valued at $4300). According to Aldevra, the Small Business Act required the solicitation to be set aside for small businesses.
Under the Small Business Act,
Each contract for the purchase of goods and services that has an anticipated value greater than [$3,000] but not greater than [$150,000] shall be reserved exclusively for small business concerns unless the contracting officer is unable to obtain offers from two or more small business concerns that are competitive with market prices and are competitive with regard to the quality and delivery of the goods or services being purchased.
15 U.S.C. § 644(j); 80 Fed. Reg. 38294 (July 2, 2015) (increasing dollar amounts).
Because the solicitation was valued at more than $3,000 but less than $150,000, Aldevra argued that the Small Business Act required the Army to apply the “rule of two” under the Small Business Act.
GAO disagreed, and denied Aldevra’s initial protest. In doing so, it relied on Section 644(r) of the Small Business Act. That section, according to GAO, makes an agency’s use of set-aside procedures for FSS contracts discretionary. GAO further explained that the SBA’s regulations give contracting officers discretion—but do not command them—to set aside orders under multiple-award contracts.
Some eight months after GAO’s initial decision, the Supreme Court issued its Kingdomware decision, interpreting the effect of the Veterans Benefits, Healthcare, and Information Technology Act of 2006’s Rule of Two. According to the Act:
[A] contracting officer of the Department shall award contracts on the basis of competition restricted to small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans if the contracting officer has a reasonable expectation that two or more small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans will submit offers and that the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.
The mandatory phrasing of the statute was crucial: the Court held that “Congress’ use of the word ‘shall’ demonstrates that [the Act] mandates the use of the Rule of Two in all contracting before using competitive procedures.” The Court, moreover, specifically found that FSS orders are contracts.
Aldevra jumped on the Kingdomware decision and sought to apply its logic to the Small Business Act. It asked GAO to reconsider its initial decision, arguing that the Supreme Court’s decision compels GAO to find that Section 644(j) similarly required the Army National Guard’s solicitation to be set aside for small businesses.
GAO denied the request. But it did so on a technicality: it ruled that Kingdomware was not made retroactive by the Court, so it could not be applied to the prior decision in Aldevra’s protest. Thus, the issue of whether Section 644(j) requires all solicitations valued between $3,000 and $150,000 be reserved for small businesses is yet to be decided.
Aldevra has successfully advanced the interests of small businesses at GAO before—it was the first to challenge the VA’s failure to follow the Rule of Two, which ultimately led to the Kingdomware decision. Aldevra’s argument here could have the same reach: under Kingdomware’s logic, the Small Business Act might compel all solicitations valued between $3,000 and $150,000 be reserved for small businesses.
Aldevra isn’t alone in its belief that the FAR’s “rule of two” must be applied to orders under the FSS and other acquisition vehicles. The SBA agreed with Aldevra’s interpretation during both its initial protest and request for reconsideration. The support of the SBA—which has considerable discretion to interpret the Small Business Act—could be crucial in the future.
Because Aldevra was decided on a technicality, the important question Aldevra raised remains to be answered. But there is little doubt that before long, Aldevra or another protester will revisit this issue, in connection with a post-Kingdomware acquisition. What happens then could be every bit as important to small businesses as Kingdomware was for SDVOSBs and VOSBs.