Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. Charles Dharapak/AP

Senators would speed federal property sales by easing requirements

Homelessness advocacy group opposes plan to bypass 25-year-old law.

A Senate version of legislation to speed sales of unneeded federal properties cleared the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday after chief sponsor, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said it was time to abandon one part of a 1987 law giving advocates for the homeless first crack at purchasing excess assets.

The Federal Real Property Asset Management Reform Act, S.2178, would set up a five-year pilot program to accelerate sales of an estimated 78,000 vacant and underused federal buildings, owned by 24 agencies, that in fiscal 2010 cost $1.6 billion annually to operate.

The bill would revamp the roles that agencies, the Office of Management and Budget, and the General Services Administration currently play in identifying unneeded properties and triggering the process to get them on the market. It differs from a bill (H.R. 1734) the House passed and from a plan the Obama administration put forward to set up a private civilian board to package properties for submission to Congress for approval to sell.

Carper said he would focus on the top most saleable properties and then designate 80 percent of proceeds for deficit reduction and allow agencies to keep 18 percent. The remaining 2 percent, as co-sponsor Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, stressed, would go to Housing and Urban Development Department funds for the homeless. Agencies would be held accountable for sales within two years or face a freeze on leasing new space, added Portman, worked on a similar initiative when he was at OMB under the George W. Bush administration. The bill cleared by voice vote and gained numerous new Senate co-sponsors, among them Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime activist on the property sales issue.

Carper acknowledged at a markup Wednesday that his bill would alter Title V of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

“I served in the House with Bruce Vento and Stewart McKinney [both deceased],” he said. “And in 1987, theirs was a good idea. But fewer than 100 properties have been disposed of and last year only one. We need to find a better way.”

Carper said he still intends to meet “the moral imperative” of aiding the homeless. “As much as I admired Vento and McKinney, I’m not sure the success of recent years is what they would have wanted,” he said.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in a statement emailed to Government Executive, said it strongly opposes the Carper bill. “The proposed law would eliminate homeless service providers' right of first refusal to acquire surplus federal property under Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act,” the center’s statement said. “Claims that the Title V program delays the disposal of unneeded federal assets aren't supported by facts. Bureaucracy and confusion among federal agencies are the cause of delays -- not homeless service providers. The law center is committed to protecting this highly effective program that helps millions of homeless people access housing, shelter and services every year."

A competing bill, introduced in March by Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Mark Warner, D-Va., matches the approach of the House-passed bill. Brown, meanwhile, also signed onto Carper’s bill after the panel accepted his amendment requiring a top-to-bottom review of the federal property sales process.

A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called the Senate panel’s move “a positive step forward.” He said Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and public buildings subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chief sponsor of the House civilian property board bill, “look forward to working with the Senate once they pass their own bill to reduce waste in the management of federal property. “