Amid scandal and shrinking budgets, senator asks if GSA can get its work done

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Alex Brandon/AP

As the General Services Administration struggles to recover from the scandal over a lavish training conference, it also faces a shrinking administrative and buildings budget and some politically tough policy decisions, a senator said Wednesday at the fourth in a series of GSA hearings this week.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, expressed concern about GSA’s long-term ability to “fulfill its statutory responsibilities to meet the needs of agencies across-the-board.”

The hearing’s discussion of the overspending at GSA’s Western Regions training conference in October 2010 also elicited a new revelation from GSA Inspector General Brian Miller that a regional commissioner arranged for his wife-- a nonfederal employee -- to have her own parking space at a federal building.

Noting that the current budget of $50 million for new construction is low compared with the $700 million to $900 million typically spent in the past, Durbin asked acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini about “the real cost of delayed construction.”

Durbin mentioned stalled projects such as the Denver Federal Center, the Homeland Security Department’s move to the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing consolidation at White Oak in suburban Maryland, and a proposal to evict the Federal Trade Commission from its Washington headquarters to allow expansion by the National Gallery of Art.

Tangherlini, having been in the job only 10 days, said he agreed that GSA’s “incredibly large and valuable set of assets” should be invested in and that delays can cost additional money due to inflation and price of raw materials.” He said he already has heard from all FTC commissioners opposing their move, which they said would cost the government $70 million to $80 million to relocate the agency’s forensic labs and high-tech equipment.

The proposal to move FTC has been pursued over the past year by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.-- a key critic of GSA’s training conference extravagance and performance in selling off unneeded federal properties. The acting GSA chief plans to meet with Mica this week.

After reviewing the management reforms Tangherlini and Miller had put in place over the past week, the new administrator said one of the key areas he will deal with is fixing GSA’s performance appraisal system. “We also need to look at the way we structure ourselves,” he added, noting that previously autonomous regional finance officials were now reporting directly to GSA’s chief financial officer. “The ability of senior-level people to have visibility straight down to spending at lower levels is key,” he said.

Miller told the panel the atmosphere for whistleblowers is much improved since the scandal broke on April 2 and his office now is busy after hearing from multiple employees, some using the agency hot line. For years, employees working under regional commissioner Neely felt they would be “squashed like a bug” if they objected to some of his expenditures, Miller said. The IG office is still pursuing details about a GSA conference for more than 100 interns held in Palm Springs, Calif., that “focused on a Jeep tour,” he added.

Both Miller and Tangherlini agreed GSA’s regional units had “a somewhat awkward relationship” with the central office, a situation made worse in 2009 when acting GSA Admininstrator Paul Prouty demoted the status of regional administrators to GS-15, which gave more power to regional commissioners such as Neely.

Durbin also asked the acting GSA chief for his view on the multiple proposals from the White House, other senators and the House on new mechanisms for accelerating the sale of unneeded federal properties.

Tangherlini said his understanding was that GSA supports the proposal from the Office of Management and Budget to create a civilian property board to package properties for approval by Congress. “But we need to make sure the process is thorough and thoughtful,” he said, “so that we’re not just selling to make money to cut the deficit, but to see to the long-terms needs of the federal government.”

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