Norton Releases Opening Statement at Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Hearing on Disadvantaged Businesses

Sep 23, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) helped chair a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing titled “Driving Equity: The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program.” Norton’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery, follows.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I cannot overstate the importance of this hearing on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. I thank Chairman DeFazio, Ranking Member Graves, and all the Members participating today for your time and attention to this critical topic.

We are at a pivotal moment in our Nation’s history. We are shining a long overdue light on the lived realities for people of color in this country, despite our pledge of “liberty and justice for all.” Over the last few months, the vulnerability of African American, Latinx, Native American, and other people of color has been unmistakably demonstrated as we ride wave after wave of crisis – a global pandemic, a tanking economy, and systemic racism repeatedly manifesting as physical violence.

The ways in which our Nation has failed and marginalized large populations of our citizens – while unbearable to watch over and over again – comes as no surprise to those of us who can feel the prevalence of racism in our bones. I have spent my entire career - in Congress, and as Chair of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission before that - fighting for equality and seeking to break down barriers so that truly all citizens have the same opportunities to participate and thrive in our economy and our society.

One of the most powerful tools in the field of transportation and construction to assist people who have routinely been left out or left behind is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Program. This program, when properly administered and enforced, ensures that businesses owned by women and minorities have a fair chance to compete for federally assisted transportation contracts.

The need for this program is ongoing, and stronger than ever, as income inequality in this country, with the pandemic helping it, continues to grow. Today’s panel will provide mountains of statistical evidence that shows discrimination on transportation construction projects is, unfortunately, alive and well.

Mr. Wainwright’s testimony documents, through rigorous statistical analysis and survey data collected by various public agencies, the continued need for the DBE program.

We are also joined today by individual business owners who have participated in the DBE program and will share their personal stories of how this program affirmatively created opportunities that did not exist in its absence. I would like in particular to thank Ms. Lerdahl, Ms. Williams, and Ms. Boyer for sharing your experiences with the Committee. 

To provide some context for why these surveys and statistical studies matter, let me point to a 2018 study conducted for the Maryland Department of Transportation, whose geographic market area includes the District of Columbia. The study looked at, among other things, whether prime contractors that work with minority- and women-owned firms as subcontractors on contracts with DBE-type goals ever solicit or hire those same firms to work on contracts without such goals. The answers were stark and stunning - 69% of African American-owned firms responded that they were seldom or never solicited to work on contracts without goals in place, and 74% of African American-owned firms were seldom or never hired to work on contracts without goals. For Hispanic Americans the results were 47% and 52%; for Asian Americans the results were 56% and 61%; for Native Americans the results were 82% and 70%; and for non-minority women, the results were 54% and 53%. This is just one regional example but this pattern repeats itself across the country.

In closing, I remind my colleagues that this hearing presents a welcome opportunity to elevate the realities of minority- and women-owned business owners. By holding this hearing today, we ensure that the DBE program and the business owners it lifts up receive thorough consideration by the Committee. We also have the opportunity to learn what policy changes Congress should consider for the continued success of the DBE program.

I look forward to hearing from today’s witnesses, as well as my fellow Members, on the DBE program.