Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said: "The federal government comes off as unreliable and whimsical in the extreme."

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said: "The federal government comes off as unreliable and whimsical in the extreme." Susan Walsh/AP

New GSA Brass Struggles to Explain Revised Plan for FBI HQ

House members of both parties express puzzlement at Trump shift to rebuilding downtown.

What was planned as a routine congressional hearing on acquisition and property management at the General Services Administration on Thursday turned into the grilling of a freshly minted agency leadership team on the future of FBI headquarters.

Both the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Operations Subcommittee scolded the GSA witnesses for this week’s abrupt change in Trump administration plans in favor of building a new headquarters on the downtown site of the current one. This change in plans would be made possible by shrinking the Washington-area workforce.

GSA’s new administrator, testifying on her 63rd day since her swearing in, and the chief of the agency’s Public Buildings Service, who has been on the job since August, struggled to explain how the FBI—after nearly a decade of pressing for a modernized campus likely in the suburbs of Washington—suddenly changed a “critical mission requirement.”

The number of FBI employees needed at headquarters dropped from 10,600 to 8,300 in a new Trump plan to shift hundreds to other states.

“The federal government comes off as unreliable and whimsical in the extreme,” said subcommittee ranking member Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who had been advocating for a newly consolidated FBI headquarters in his district in Springfield, Va. “What was the cost to the private businesses, localities, and states that participated in this competition? The procurement process alone cost GSA $20 million with nothing to show for it.”

Under the new plan, the FBI would be one of the only members of the Intelligence Community that does not have a stand-alone campus “to mitigate both physical and espionage threats,” he added.

Connolly even suggested that President Trump’s business profits might have been a motivator. “If GSA had gone ahead with their original, plan, the [decaying, four-decade-old J. Edgar Hoover Building] would have been turned into a private development that would have directly competed with the [nearby] Trump Hotel for the entirety of the lease.”

Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., was equally skeptical. “I understand real estate, and I don’t think the FBI’s experience is in real estate,” he said when the GSA officials said the FBI had changed its views on the advantages of consolidation. “Why did it drop from 10,000 to 8,000—did we fire that many people?” Meadows demanded. “It is less risky to tear down a building in Washington than to do a new acquisition? You couldn’t sell or exchange [the Hoover building]? That’s a distinction without a difference.”

Dan Mathews, commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, said his agency “stands by the decision” made by the FBI to change its requirements from a consolidated headquarters that houses 11,000 employees to the smaller staff, which rendered it feasible to rebuild on the existing site. Though he struggled to pinpoint the timeline of events, Mathews said, “It’s important to understand that it began with the [July] cancelation of the previous project” that involved bids from competing developers who would exchange construction of the new campus for ownership of the Hoover site.

The canceled procurement was due to “insufficient funds” from Congress before he arrived in his job, said Mathews, a former Capitol Hill staffer who acknowledged that he had long followed the issue. “The issue at hand was signing a contract without funds in hand,” he said. “New construction allows us to meet national security requirements” such as setbacks for protection against bombings, electronic eavesdropping and chemical and biological threats, he said.

In infrastructure, the advantages of staying at the Hoover site on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, he added, include ready-made Metro stops, road networks, cable networks for classified information and water systems. “Building a building is less expensive than building a campus.”

Plus, Mathews said, FBI employees “live all around the Beltway,” so a move to one suburban location would have “put a lot of them in a difficult commuting position.”

Upon questioning on the number of other GSA-controlled sites that might be available, he put the number at 32. But Meadows scoffed. “This is not my first rodeo, or my first hearing on surplus property, and I can I guarantee you it’s more than 32,” the chairman said.

Connolly called GSA’s explanation “Kafkaesque,” saying it “will expose the FBI to real danger.” For six years, the FBI has been saying it needed to “consolidate because fragmentation hampers information sharing and collaboration” in the face of such threats as terrorism, Russian interference in U.S. elections and cyberattacks. “Now you’re saying they changed their mind?” he asked.

Connolly also challenged the PBS chief’s statement that Congress hadn’t come up with an appropriation, citing a promise elicited by then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and noting that Trump’s GSA still wants $2.2 billion for the downtown plan.

The new proposal violates basic GSA principles, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.: the goals of reducing the federal footprint and consolidating workforces. “How do you square that circle?” she asked. “And why is it less costly?” Scattering FBI headquarters employees “around the country does exactly the opposite,” she said. “It would take the FBI in a direction it hasn’t gone in since it was created.”

Connolly promised Congress would seek the internal documents from FBI and GSA that led to the decision. And with Meadows’ help, he extracted a commitment from the GSA officials for a response within two weeks to a six-month-old request from the minority party for internal documents on which GSA had been “stonewalling.”

On the general issues, newly installed Administrator Emily Murphy—a veteran of both Capitol Hill and GSA—told the panel that she valued oversight and communication. “One of my first acts was to quadruple the amount of required ethics training for all political appointees at GSA,” she said. “I plan to enhance this high level of training by adding more targeted ethics training by focusing on areas where GSA has a relatively unique role in the federal government, such as through a deeper focus on the Competition in Contracting Act.”

GSA Inspector General Carol Fortine Ochoa, while citing the need for reducing waste and improving procurement integrity, warned of a coming retirement wave “in mission critical staff” that will reduce expertise in all GSA divisions.

Alan Thomas, commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, spoke of coming savings through consolidating fleet management. GSA now manages just one-third of its fleet, or 200,000 vehicles, Thomas said. He estimated the agency could save $2,500 per vehicle on average through consolidated management by GSA rather than other agencies.