Cost estimates don’t help bid to move FTC offices

A House committee-approved bill that would move the offices of the Federal Trade Commission to create exhibit space for the National Gallery of Art received a cost score from the Congressional Budget Office that displeases the plan's chief sponsor, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

The net cost of implementing the office space moves would be $270 million during 2012-2016, CBO said last week in a report analyzing H.R. 690. That estimate assumes the most economical strategy to expand the art gallery's space into a historic building at the prestigious corner of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues involves constructing new offices for FTC, which has occupied its ornate headquarters since the late 1930s.

Where FTC would go is unclear. "H.R. 690 would direct GSA to relocate employees from the current FTC headquarters building to other government-owned facilities," CBO wrote. "The legislation specifically identifies two possible locations; however, according to [the Government Services Administration], the Department of Health and Human Services, the Architect of the Capitol, and GSA are currently slated to occupy those locations."

What's more, CBO continued, "Purchasing or constructing buildings for permanent federal use is more cost-effective than entering into long-term leases; therefore, CBO assumes that GSA would choose to build or buy the FTC a new headquarters building," a raw expense of about $300 million, which could be offset somewhat by savings elsewhere.

The problem, said Mica spokesman Justin Harclerode, is CBO "scored the bill for something that was not contemplated. Construction of a new building is not the bill's intent," he stressed, adding that Mica seeks a way to showcase the gallery's holdings via a renovation paid for not by taxpayers, but by private donations and through ending the gallery's leasing expenses. Mica's plan would give most FTC workers more-modern office space, Harclerode added.

A spokeswoman for the National Gallery, which favors the change and its accompanying modifications to the current FTC offices, was cautiously approving of CBO's work. "The figures pertaining to the gallery's leases on Pennsylvania Avenue and our appropriations for renovations and repairs on the West and East Buildings are accurate," said Deborah Ziska, chief of press and public information. "The cost of modifying the FTC building, which we would raise in private funds, is a best estimate at this point in time."

FTC leaders have strenuously opposed Mica's plan. As Commissioner Julie Brill recently told Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, "To disrupt this mission now, when consumers are suffering," would be especially wrong. Added commissioner William Kovacic, the mission certainly would suffer if FTC were removed from a structure "that has become so identified with us and our brand."

FTC Office of Public Affairs Director Cecelia Prewett told Government Executive, "As the commissioners stated earlier in a letter to Chairman Mica, a forced move of the FTC could impose additional costs on the American taxpayer, as this score shows."

District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who sits on Mica's committee, also opposes the move. She said it is a "sharp break with both the letter and the spirit" of the current cost-cutting agenda in Congress. It wastes recent improvements to the FTC building, she said, and it would deny the Federal Buildings Fund its current contribution from the FTC. In addition, she said, much of the new space the gallery would gain would be used for offices and education rather than exhibits.

The full House has yet to take up Mica's bill, and the Senate committee of jurisdiction, Environment and Public Works, has yet to consider the plan.

Norton told Government Executive the bill's prospects in the Senate are "zero," and that the delivery of the CBO score means that Mica will have a tough time bringing the bill to the floor because "taxpayers would have to pay for it."

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