Mnuchin defends record restrictions for SBA stimulus loans

We have written much in recent days about how the SBA has imposed new restrictions on participation in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) by small business owners with a record of arrest or conviction.  We were therefore surprised to hear Secretary Mnuchin at the White House press briefing yesterday assert that the new SBA rules are actually more favorable to this population than the old ones.  That is simply not true.

Prior to enactment of the CARES Act, the SBA’s rules for its 7(a) loan program—of which the PPP is the newest part—disqualified only people with open criminal cases.  People with past records were subject to an individual evaluation.  In launching the PPP, the SBA imposed entirely new mandatory disqualifications that were neither part of SBA’s preexisting regulations nor required by the CARES Act.  New PPP rules and policies prohibit loans to any small business owner who, in the past five years, had a felony conviction, plea, or was placed on probation, parole, or diversion, even without a conviction.

Yet at a press conference yesterday following Senate approval of additional PPP funds, Mnuchin claimed exactly the opposite.  Responding to a question about the President’s comment the day before that he would look into the issue of people with records being denied access to small business loans, the Secretary stated that he had “worked with the White House” to “specifically design” the PPP program to reflect criminal justice reform efforts led by Jared Kushner and others in the Trump Administration.  As a result, he said, the new five-year disqualification period is “significantly shorter than what had been done before . . . . There were a lot of people who wouldn’t have had access previously and we changed those regulations.”  (The clip is here, starting at 7:38; a transcript is below.)

The Secretary’s explanation is so wildly off the mark that it is hard to believe he was simply misinformed.  More likely, he was reporting on how the SBA’s 7(a) loan program has been administered in practice, unwittingly revealing an unwritten policy of categorical exclusion in spite of formal policies calling for individual review.  That peek at how a risk-averse bureaucracy actually operates out of the public eye would be no surprise to people who have experienced it.

In the run-up to the drafting of the new stimulus bill, several bipartisan coalitions and policy experts urged Congress and the SBA to ensure that  justice-involved people who have started small businesses—and their employees—can obtain stimulus funds.  But Mnuchin yesterday seemed to shut that door: “For now, we’re not going to do that.”

We strongly encourage the Secretary to take another look, and to do it quickly, before the new PPP funds are authorized and distributed.  As Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation wrote in this space yesterday, “During this trying time, the SBA must reexamine these regulations to ensure that small businesses that made the most of one second chance don’t have it taken away through no fault of their own.”

Transcript of Secretary Mnuchin’s comments (the clip is here, starting at 7:38):

Question:  Yesterday the President said he’d look into the issue of people with criminal convictions not getting access to some of these programs.  Can you give us an update on that.

Mnuchin:  Of course Yes. We worked with the White House on this.  There were actually much more onerous restrictions in the SBA program.  There were people who had misdemeanors that weren’t allowed to access the program, it was much longer than five years.  Because of the criminal reform legislation that was passed and the work that’s been done in the White House by Jared and others, we specifically designed the program and the five years was significantly shorter than what had been done before.  So we’d already taken that into account.

[Question garbled]

Mnuchin:  For now, we’re not going to do that.  But I do want to emphasize we did take this into account.  There were a lot of people who wouldn’t have had access previously and we changed those regulations.