CRS Report: Small Business Size Standards: A Historical Analysis of Contemporary Issues (updated 12/28/18)

By: Christine V. Williams on 01/24/2019


Small business size standards are of congressional interest because they have a pivotal role in determining eligibility for Small Business Administration (SBA) assistance as well as federal contracting and, in some instances, tax preferences. Although there is bipartisan agreement that the nation’s small businesses play an important role in the American economy, there are differences of opinion concerning how to define them. The Small Business Act of 1953 (P.L. 83163, as amended) authorized the SBA to establish size standards to ensure that only small businesses receive SBA assistance.

The SBA currently uses two types of size standards to determine SBA program eligibility: industry-specific size standards and alternative size standards based on the applicant’s maximum tangible net worth and average net income after federal taxes. The SBA’s industry-specific size standards determine program eligibility for firms in 1,036 industrial classifications in 23 sub-industry activities described in the 2017 North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). The size standards are based on one of four measures: (1) number of employees, (2) average annual receipts in the previous three years, (3) average asset size as reported in the firm’s four quarterly financial statements for the preceding year, or (4) a combination of number of employees and barrel per day refining capacity. Overall, about 97% of all employer firms qualify as small under the SBA’s size standards. These firms represent about 30% of industry receipts.

The SBA conducts an analysis of various economic factors, such as each industry’s overall competitiveness and the competitiveness of firms within each industry, to determine its size standards. However, in the absence of precise statutory guidance and consensus on how to define small, the SBA’s size standards have often been challenged, typically by industry representatives seeking to increase the number of firms eligible for assistance and by Members concerned that the size standards may not adequately target assistance to firms that they consider to be truly small.

This report provides a historical examination of the SBA’s size standards and assesses competing views concerning how to define a small business. It also discusses

P.L. 111-240, the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which authorized the SBA to establish an alternative size standard using maximum tangible net worth and average net income after federal taxes for both the 7(a) and 504/CDC loan guaranty programs; established, until the SBA acted, an interim alternative size standard for the 7(a) and 504/CDC programs of not more than $15 million in tangible net worth and not more than $5 million in average net income after federal taxes (excluding any carry-over losses) for the two full fiscal years before the date of the application; and required the SBA to conduct a detailed review of not less than one-third of the SBA’s industry size standards every 18 months beginning on the new law’s date of enactment (September 27, 2010) and ensure that each size standard is reviewed at least once every five years.

P.L. 112-239, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which directed the SBA not to limit the number of size standards and to assign the appropriate size standard to each NAICS industrial classification. This provision addressed the SBA’s practice of limiting the number of size standards it used and combining size standards within industrial groups as a means to reduce the complexity of its size standards and to provide greater consistency for industrial classifications that have similar economic characteristics.

P.L. 114-328, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which authorizes the SBA to establish different size standards for agricultural enterprises using existing methods and appeal processes. Previously, the small business size standard for agricultural enterprises was set in statute as having annual receipts not in excess of $750,000.

Legislation introduced during recent Congresses (including H.R. 33, the Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act of 2017, and its Senate companion bill, S. 584, during the 115th Congress) to authorize the SBA’s Office of Chief Counsel for Advocacy to approve or disapprove a size standard requested by a federal agency for purposes other than the Small Business Act or the Small Business Investment Act of 1958. The SBA’s Administrator currently has that authority.   Small Business Size Standards December 2018 Updated