The VA Rule of Two, while a powerful motivator for setting procurements aside for service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses, does have its limits.
One of those exceptions was discussed in a recent ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The court confirmed that the VA may convert a service-disabled veteran-owned small business set-aside solicitation to a small business set-aside if the SDVOSB bids it receives are too high in price.
The VA’s “rule of two” for service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses provides a powerful contracting preference. Thanks to the rule of two, the VA awarded 23.39% of prime contracting dollars to SDVOSBs in Fiscal Year 2019, compared to 4.39% governmentwide.
But the rule of two has its limits. Importantly, before issuing an SDVOSB set-aside, the Contracting Officer must have a reasonable belief that “the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.” And, as a powerful federal court recently held, the fact that an SDVOSB’s prices have been accepted by the GSA under the Federal Supply Schedule program does not require the VA to accept those prices as fair and reasonable in a rule of two analysis.
In a recent protest, GAO examined the rules for price evaluation and source selection methodology required under the Federal Supply Schedule (FSS) Program. At a minimum, an agency must perform price comparisons to evaluate what vendor will be lowest cost along with any additional features and benefits to the government. Because the FSS solicitation at issue failed to include proper price evaluation terms, GAO sustained a challenge to those terms.
GAO recently gave its blessing to a VA decision not to follow the Rule of Two, despite knowing several SDVOSBs would bid. The VA’s decision was based on the contracting officer’s opinion that prices would not be fair and reasonable based on an evaluation of prices and market research.
The decision is important for providing some clarification on what research a contracting officer must undertake to establish that prices will not be fair and reasonable for purposes of the Rule of Two.
A protester contending that the VA violated the “rule of two” by failing to set-aside a solicitation for SDVOSBs must present sufficient facts to indicate that the VA should have had a reasonable expectation of receiving two or more offers from SDVOSBs at fair and reasonable prices.
In a recent decision, the Court of Federal Claims dismissed a rule of two challenge because, according to the Court, the protester only identified one SDVOSB–itself–that was likely to submit an offer at a fair and reasonable price.
The VA is considering using so-called “tiered evaluations” to address concerns that SDVOSBs and VOSBs may not always offer “fair and reasonable” pricing, even when two or more veteran-owned companies compete for a contract.
In a session yesterday at the National Veterans Small Business Engagement, a panel of VA acquisition leaders described the potential tiered evaluation process. It’s hard to argue that the VA isn’t entitled to fair and reasonable pricing, but judging from the reaction in the room, some SDVOSBs and VOSBs may wonder whether tiered evaluations are an effort to circumvent Kingdomware.