Plans to trim the federal real estate inventory have advanced, with House passage of a bill to set up a panel to recommend properties to be designated as surplus. Construction industry officials say such a plan would provide opportunities to upgrade federal buildings or spark private developments on former federal sites. But the House measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where a similar bill has been introduced but has yet to move.
The House bill, which the chamber approved Feb. 7 by a 259-164 vote, establishes an asset-disposal process modeled on the Dept. of Defense Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program. The bill, introduced by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), would create a nine-member commission to review the federal nonmilitary real estate inventory and make recommendations to Congress about selling or redeveloping high-value properties, consolidating federal space and streamlining disposal of assets deemed unneeded.
Denham, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on public buildings, says, "Under existing law, selling ... vacant and underutilized properties is not easy—the process is too cumbersome and congested with red tape."
Some industry officials acknowledge that the Senate bill, which Scott Brown (R-Mass.) introduced last August, faces challenges. It has yet to pick up any co-sponsors. Still, some officials are optimistic about the outlook for the measure.
Bryan Howard, U.S. Green Building Council legislative director, says there is bipartisan support for a civilian BRAC concept. The National Research Council, using Government Accountability Office data, said in a Nov. 3 report that the federal government spends about $1.6 billion a year to operate and maintain facilities that are no longer needed to support agencies' missions. Howard says, "Given those numbers and the reality that we're dealing with in terms of the federal budget, I think [civil BRAC bills] are attractive options for deficit reduction."
Industry groups, including the American Institute of Architects and Associated General Contractors of America, say they support the bill. Marco Giamberardino, senior director of AGC's federal and heavy construction division, says that because the civilian panel would be similar to DOD's BRAC commission, "there would be a logical role" for the industry to help the General Services Administration and other agencies dispose of or redevelop properties. He says, "A lot of the buildings are in need of repair, and the only way to make them attractive to the private market is to get them ... modernized to a certain extent."
The Obama administration has a program under way to realize $3 billion in nondefense real estate asset sales and operation and maintenance savings by the end of 2012. The White House says savings to date total $1.5 billion.
The administration also proposed a BRAC-type plan last year. But the Office of Management and Budget said in a Feb. 6 statement that the House bill "does not go far enough to create a transformative process that would save taxpayers billions of dollars." OMB stopped short of a veto warning but said the White House prefers the DOD BRAC procedure, under which the commission's recommendations take effect unless Congress rejects them.