Senators from both sides of the aisle on Wednesday challenged hearing witnesses about the General Services Administration’s surprise decision last month to abandon the decade-plus-long effort to find a new Washington headquarters site so the FBI can move out of the decaying J. Edgar Hoover building.
They raised questions of waste, unusual decision-making under acting agency leaders and the Trump administration’s policy of responding to congressional oversight information requests only from the majority party.
Joined by the Government Accountability Office, they also criticized GSA’s strategy of planning to swap the downtown land under the Hoover building for a suburban site near Metro, a procurement process that had been narrowed down to a few developers bidding on two possible sites in Prince George’s County, Md., and one in Springfield, Va.
Officials from both GSA and the FBI committed to delivering to Congress a new plan within 120 days.
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
“The elaborate plan to swap the Hoover building for a new headquarters facility was, in hindsight, not the best option,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “It is clear from today’s testimony that: the FBI needs a new headquarters; fixing up the Hoover building with its $100 million backlog of maintenance needs makes little sense.”
Ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said, “My concerns range from the lack of consultation with Congress, to the impacts on national security, to the excess cost that this decision will impose on the federal government.” Noting that he had driven by the Hoover building and seen nets set up to catch falling pieces, Carper said, “the aging building … no longer meets the needs of the FBI. It suffers significantly from deferred maintenance, and the employees bear the brunt of that lack of investment.”
He scolded Congress and the Trump administration for underfunding the FBI relocation, for which the Obama administration had proposed spending $1.4 billion over multiple years. The fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill that became law in May contained $323 million for the project under the Justice Department and $200 million under GSA.
Gelber, acting commissioner of the GSA’s Public Buildings Service, acknowledged under questioning that the sudden cancellation “unfortunately” may have wasted $20 million, though some of that money invested might be repurposed.
“After internal and interagency deliberations, GSA determined that moving forward without full funding would put the government at risk for project cost escalations,” he testified. “Additionally, both GSA and FBI expressed concerns about the potential reduction in value of the Hoover property since developers were scheduled to receive the property once the new FBI consolidated headquarters was completed.”
Whatever happens, the Hoover building wouldn’t be ready for demolition for five to seven years, Gelber said. He urged Congress to allow GSA access to the Federal Buildings Fund to finance capital projects.
GAO analyst Dave Wise summarized a new report on the FBI project, noting that “GSA has limited experience in successfully completing swap exchange transactions and chose not to pursue several proposed swap exchanges” before the FBI debacle. “Several factors may continue to limit use of swap exchanges, including market factors,” he said. These include the “availability of alternative properties and an investor's approach for valuing properties,” which has produced private-sector offers below GSA’s assessments of the property’s value.
Richard Haley, the FBI’s assistant director of the facilities and finance division, said one main problem with the land swap without full funding up-front was that the developers would be able to get in and plan their new project only after the FBI fully vacated the Hoover complex. “The FBI understands the increasing costs of federal office space, as it leases more than 350 locations nationwide for its field and satellite offices through GSA,” he testified. “However, the FBI has made concerted efforts to reduce space requirements by consolidating case files and evidence storage in centralized locations in lower cost areas and minimizing personal workspace and common areas.”
Under questioning about possible Trump White House involvement in the cancellation decision, both the GSA and FBI representatives said they spoke only to relevant officials at the Office of Management and Budget. The highest-level official making the decision was acting GSA administrator Tim Horne, Gelber said. He was reluctant to speak in public of the overall estimated value of the 42-year-old Hoover building, which sits on Pennsylvania Ave. on prime downtown real estate.
Barrasso pressed Gelber on why members of Congress had to learn of the cancellation not directly but though the press. That media story “was not an authorized directive, and was not part of GSA’s plan to inform members,” he said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who has been active for years seeking to win the FBI headquarters for Maryland, blasted GSA for having gone through the long process of taking bids, conducting environmental impact studies, and seeking a congressional appropriation rather than relying on leasing. “GSA has created a legal problem because of the cancellation of the prospectus,” Cardin said, noting that “well in excess” of $1 billion dollars over the years has already been appropriated.
Bemoaning the money already spent by localities and developers, he suggested that GSA commit to a headquarters location and work with Congress’s appropriators to get the project done sooner.
The GSA official, when pressed by Carper on producing documents and answering oversight questions, said his agency “will respond to questions from the chair, in alignment with current administration policy.”
“That is outrageous,” Carper rejoined, accusing his Republican colleagues of staying silent on the issue. “How would you like it if the Democrats had the White House and the majority in the House and Senate and had this policy of ‘we’re not going to respond to your questions?’ We cannot stand for this. Our job is to do oversight.”
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., agreed that “we did not like it.”
Image via bakdc/Shutterstock.com.