In a new round of musical chairs involving federal office buildings, a House field hearing on Tuesday erupted in shouting and cross-talk over the multi-agency impact of a congressman’s two-year-old proposal to move the Federal Trade Commission out of its headquarters to allow the National Gallery of Art to expand.
One possible result: A rethinking of the General Services Administration’s already-in-progress plan to move the national endowments for the arts and the humanities from the Old Post Office Building on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, part of a deal with developer Donald Trump to convert it to a luxury hotel.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, held the hearing symbolically in the swank modern auditorium of the privately owned Constitution Center in Southwest Washington to dramatize why he thinks the FTC could save taxpayer money by consolidating its three main area offices in that building, which the federal government is already committed to leasing for years for several agencies.
(That commitment became controversial two years ago when the independent Securities and Exchange Commission signed the lease in anticipation of a surge in its workforce because of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Financial Reform law, only to see Republicans in Congress block additional funding.)
Now, Mica argued, the Constitution Center is “probably one of the nicest government buildings in Washington.” By contrast, the FTC’s 70-year-old Apex building at Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues, “though classic and beautiful on the outside,” is, on the inside, “a dump” and a “poor utilization of space” that will require expensive modernization, he said, showing slides of an obsolete phone booth and radiator.
The art gallery across the street, Mica continued, has proposed converting the current FTC headquarters into a north wing, connected by a tunnel, to provide more exhibit space and save the gallery leasing costs, a project for which the gallery has proposed raising private funding.
As the FTC prepares to move employees out of expired-lease buildings on New Jersey Avenue and M Street and into leased space at Constitution Center, why not add in the 600-700 employees of the headquarters staff and thus save money by consolidating data centers and eliminating, for example, the FTC’s current shuttle bus service, he asked.
The reason, Mica shouted, is that “GSA is thwarting the plan” by “purposefully” giving 100,000 square feet in the Constitution Center to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “What the FTC does is mostly paperwork-- I don’t see any heavy manufacturing,” he said, suggesting that the GSA and the commission are using iffy statistics on space per employee to protect excess office space. “It’s an abuse of taxpayer dollars” to say you can’t fit the whole FTC under one roof, he said. “Do the math!” Citing a 2011 committee-passed resolution favoring moving the FTC, Mica said, “you are saying Congress should go jump in the Potomac?”
David Robbins, the FTC’s executive director for the past four months, argued that his agency is focused on its role as “stewards” of taxpayer dollars. “The commission believes that the new space is properly configured to sustain its mission in a cost-effective manner, consistent with space utilization regulations and the administration’s initiative to make more efficient use of the government’s real estate assets, known as Freeze the Footprint,” he said. But consolidating the FTC at Constitution Center is “neither physically nor financially feasible,” and would add $70 million in moving costs and $170 million in new leasing costs over the next 30 years, Robbins said.
The current moving plan is already 40 percent complete, Robbins added. “I’m also an art lover, but it doesn’t make sense to give our building to the National Gallery,” he said.
GSA defended its decisions on leasing at the Constitution Center, noting that the project of moving the endowments is already 35 percent complete and that the FTC’s satellite offices are moving as soon as March. “The FTC’s Apex is a functioning, performing building that doesn’t require significant renovation,” said Chris Wisner, assistant commissioner for leasing at GSA’s Public Buildings Service. Turning it over to the gallery “would remove it from GSA’s inventory” of space for workers.
GSA’s analysis, Wisner added, confirmed that FTC, with its projected growth to more than 1,600 Washington-area employees and need for 446,000 square feet of space, “would not fit” in the Constitution Center. And the decision to give the space to the endowments, he later told Government Executive, was required because “we had an immediate demand, and the holdover costs at the Old Post Office would have been $1 million a month, escalating.”
Wisner for the most part listened as GSA came under attack by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who had a career in real estate development, and who admonished GSA for not understanding market rates. “GSA does a poor job of managing assets -- there are empty buildings all over town,” he said. He accused the agency of making move decisions knowing that “the wishes of the American people” differ. “There’s also a political component not always mentioned,” Meadows added. The FTC commissioners have something “too nice to give up -- they want to hold on to what they’ve got.”
Mica went further, demanding from GSA a list of all vacant D.C. properties and threatening to put the endowment moves on hold. “I’m outraged. You’re not going to BS me on this,” he told the GSA official. “This is a perfect example of why the American people are fed up with government.”
The hearing’s lone Democrat, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said that as a newcomer to the issue, he wanted to examine both sides. “We have to consider the broader view, the values, such as proximity,” he said. “I want federal employees in a professional setting, not hermits in a cave.” But he asked GSA and the FTC for further information on how they arrived at their cost estimates and space needs. And on the endowment moves, he asked whether GSA considered Virginia and Maryland locations.
The National Gallery, chief press officer Deborah Ziska told Government Executive on Tuesday, “supports Mica’s efforts in terms of the FTC as it concerns the National Gallery of Art.”