Senate bill muddies waters on shedding excess real estate

Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del Stephan Savoia/AP

A long-awaited Senate version of legislation to speed up sales of excess federal real estate was introduced on Thursday by a bipartisan group led by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., adding a new wrinkle to efforts by the Obama administration and House Republicans to streamline the federal role in property management and save money.

The Federal Real Property Asset Management Reform Act is aimed at reducing the budget deficit by helping agencies improve the disposal of unneeded government-owned buildings and facilities, and manage existing space better. It is co-sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; and Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

The bill differs from the measure (H.R. 1734) the House passed on Feb. 7 as well as from a proposal offered last year by the Office of Management and Budget. Both those plans would create a civilian property board similar to the Defense Department’s Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which would package promising properties for sale and submit them to Congress for approval.

The Carper bill would give OMB and agencies authority to dispose of property, while preserving congressional oversight of the process. Twenty-four federal agencies in fiscal 2009 reported possessing more than 14,000 excess and 45,000 underutilized buildings that together cost more than $1.7 billion annually to maintain. The government owns upward of 1 million properties nationwide.

"When it comes to federal property management, it's clear to me and others that we can get better results and save money," Carper said. "Federal property management has been on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list every year since January 2003, in part due to the overwhelming number of unneeded and underutilized facilities held by federal agencies.” He added that he looks forward to working with the administration and House lawmakers on the legislation.

Specifically, Carper’s bill builds on a 2004 executive order from President George W. Bush to establish a property management “leadership structure” within agencies and at OMB. Each agency would appoint a senior real property management officer to monitor asset sales in accordance with the agency’s strategic plan. Agencies would set measurable goals for property disposal and be held accountable for meeting them by agency chiefs and Congress.

The bill also would require agencies currently enjoying independent powers to lease office space to seek congressional approval for certain high-priced rentals, rather than leaving it to the General Services Administration. It would devote the bulk of proceeds to deficit reduction, dividing the remainder with 80 percent going to miscellaneous Treasury receipts, 18 percent to agencies for property management and 2 percent for homeless assistance grants.

Unlike the House-passed bill, the Senate version would continue a process through which the Housing and Urban Development Department would work to “address the needs of the homeless and state and local governments.”

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