|Congressman to Bureaucrats: “Stop Sitting on Our Assets”|
By Ashton Ellis
Friday, October 28 2011
When it comes to underutilized federal properties, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) offers a simple solution: “It’s time to stop sitting on our assets.”
As Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Denham has jurisdiction over nearly 14,000 federal properties that have already been identified for renovation or sale. For Denham, the federal agencies that hold those vacant bureau-scapes should either redevelop them for increased utilization or sell them to a private entity that will. Either way, the taxpayer wins.
One property already drawing attention is the Old Post Office Annex in Washington, D.C. The facility loses $6 million a year, yet it hasn’t been used in ten years. Denham says Donald Trump and the Waldorf Astoria have expressed interest in buying the Annex to use as a commercial venue that “creates jobs and actually makes money for the taxpayers.” The impediment: a byzantine selling process and parochial interests that make it hard to offload government property.
If passed, Denham’s bill, the Civilian Property Realignment Act, would streamline the process for selling wasted federal real estate. The bill creates a non-partisan commission charged with overseeing a process similar to the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) system used by the Pentagon to shutter military bases. Once the property commission makes its recommendations, each house of Congress gets an up-or-down vote on the entire list.
The White House Office of Management and Budget estimates that the savings from selling all of these vacant buildings would be $15 billion within three years.
Denham’s bill has another strong selling point: greater transparency into the bureaucracy.
When Denham took the chairman’s gavel in January, one of his first acts was to investigate an illegal lease agreement signed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Once cornered, officials at the SEC tried to back-date documents to hide their unapproved tenancy of a huge facility they didn’t need. Similar tactics by other departments convinced Denham that all agencies should be stripped of their leasing authority.
Then he went further. The real problem driving the excess in federal property is the lack of information about the government’s asset portfolio. According to Denham, “Until we know how many workers each agency employs and how well each agency maximizes the utilization of every square foot we’re already paying for, we can’t justify hiring any more employees or buying any more property.” Denham’s bill aims to identify those numbers so that he and fellow committee members can put the brakes on any unnecessary hires or property acquisitions.
Denham knows where to look. Prior to serving in Congress, he was a California state senator. Coming from a business background in the state’s Central Valley, he soon discovered that no one in Sacramento could give a straight answer on how much property the state owns. Pushing for answers, Denham soon realized that CALTRANS owned several properties that were not on its official list.
One of the problems caused by California’s unofficial ownership was the uncertainty it created for adjacent businesses. On more than one occasion Denham was alerted to the plight of a business owner trying to expand his operation, but stymied by a previously unknown government roadblock. In the state senate, Denham prodded CALTRANS to sell some of its off-list holdings. He also made strides in cataloguing what properties the state actually owns.
Other politicians can push gimmicks to stoke employment, but for Denham “true job creation is removing barriers to private sector growth,” sometimes literally in the case of obsolete buildings.
Support is growing for the Civilian Property Realignment Act. It was voted out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on October 13, and is headed for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. A Senate version is in the works, and even the Obama White House released a notice earlier this year that it too is compiling a list of federal properties that could be sold to reduce the deficit.
The bill is bipartisan because it raises revenue without raising taxes. Best of all, it literally shrinks the federal government.
With dreams of a “grand bargain” to balance the budget in one year fading from reality, Denham’s bill is one of the concrete solutions able to put America back on the path to fiscal sanity. “We’ve got to find many areas of government that chip away at the problem of runaway spending. Creating a portfolio of federal property that drains taxpayer money is a great way to start.”
Whatever it takes to get bureaucrats off our assets.
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