House passes bill to create BRAC-like federal property board

White House prefers its own version; homelessness groups object.

The House on Tuesday voted to create a nine-member commission of private and public sector specialists to accelerate the sale of excess federal properties as a way to reduce the budget deficit.

The Civilian Property Alignment Act (H.R. 1734) sponsored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., passed 259-164. It would empower a board to package federal properties for sale en bloc and give them an up-or-down vote in Congress. The bill has drawn criticism from the White House.

“One thing that we should all agree on is that the sale, redevelopment and consolidation of vacant and unneeded federal property is a common-sense way to eliminate waste and save taxpayer dollars,” said Denham, who as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, held a hearing on the bill in February 2011 at the partially empty and unheated Old Post Office in Washington.

“Our government has a horrible track record of selling properties that aren’t being used,” he said Tuesday on the House floor.

In fiscal 2009, the federal government spent more than $1.7 billion in operating costs for underused buildings, Denham said, and the Office of Management and Budget estimates the commission could generate $15 billion in revenue from property sales, including a projected $500 million from immediate sales within 180 days of the bill’s passage.

The bill is controversial because the red tape it seeks to eliminate affects the process the General Services Administration currently uses under the law. A special claim on properties goes to organizations that advocate for the homeless, while state and local authorities and veterans interests also get a say.

Some 14,000 unneeded federal properties are listed in a database that OMB maintains, and the Obama administration has made a priority of accelerating their sale. In May, OMB proposed its own version of legislation for a civilian property commission resembling the Defense Department’s Base Closing and Realignment Commission.

A day before the House vote, the White House on Monday issued a statement of administration policy objecting to Denham’s bill because it bypasses steps required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Obama administration disagreed with the bill’s zeroing out of GSA’s construction budget, and it criticized some of the category exceptions for eligible properties.

“As currently drafted, H.R. 1734 does not go far enough in empowering the commission to ensure that unneeded properties are moved off the federal books,” OMB said. “Specifically, the commission's recommendations, as approved by the president, would not go into effect unless Congress adopts them by joint resolution.”

The bill’s prospects in the Senate are unclear. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security, plans to introduce his own bill in coming weeks.

“I appreciate that the House is moving forward with efforts to curb the amount of unnecessary federal property and improve the federal leasing process so that it is more cost-effective,” he said. “We share the same goal of better utilizing scarce taxpayer dollars, though I prefer an approach that differs in some respects.”

House Democrats objected to certain components such as those affecting the homeless and the environment. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said the current bill “includes some offensive provisions that will jeopardize support on my side of the aisle.”

Before the vote, the House rejected an amendment by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., that would have allowed GSA to work with state and local authorities to preserve certain properties as parks or recreation areas.

The bill includes an amendment by Russ Carnahan, D- Mo., to require that future construction and leased projects use life-cycle cost analysis in the design or lease of a federal building where the project is receiving at least 50 percent federal funding.

In an effort at bipartisanship, Denham previously dropped his committee’s contentious proposal to move the Federal Trade Commission to space in Southwest Washington and give its building to the National Gallery of Art.

During the debate, agency management of properties came in for criticism.

“Properties sit vacant and woefully underutilized, not only costing taxpayers billions of dollars, but often are eyesores in the local communities, and steal property away from the ad valorem revenues of local communities,” said Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla. “Even so, despite the current budget climate, many agencies continue to seek more space than is necessary, reducing efficiency and increasing cost . . . and most agencies do not have the incentives to minimize those costs.”

The bill drew backing from the nonprofit Citizens against Government Waste. “Placing long, drawn-out administrative roadblocks in the way of the government’s ability to sell properties and produce billions of dollars to help pay down the deficit is wasteful and highly inefficient,” said Thomas Schatz, the group’s president, in a letter to Congress this week.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, meanwhile, said was “deeply disappointed” the bill passed. If enacted, the legislation “would seriously undermine Title 5 of the McKinney-Vento Act, a highly effective federal program that serves 2.4 million homeless people each year,” a statement from the group said.

The center added that the revenue raised from such sales “would be minimal” and, “given the $82 million cost to implement H.R. 1734, the impact on services for homeless people would be severe at a time of dramatically growing need across the country.”