House seeks to unload unneeded government property

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By JIM ABRAMS, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House on Tuesday backed legislation to sell off or consolidate some of the thousands of underused or unneeded federal buildings, potentially saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

The House bill takes its cue from past efforts to close military bases, setting up a commission that would make recommendations on streamlining federal property that Congress could either accept or reject, but could not alter.

The Obama administration last May came up with a similar plan modeled after the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, or BRAC.

But, as is generally the case in today's partisan atmosphere, there was discord even on a measure that enjoyed bipartisan support.

The White House, in a statement, said it "appreciates" that the bill would pursue reform of the government's real estate portfolio, but voiced concerns it did not go far enough. The administration, and House Democrats, also said the bill discounts environmental factors in deciding which properties should be disposed of.

The vote was 259-164 with 21 Democrats voting for the bill. It now goes to the Senate, where a companion bill has been introduced.

The aim of the bill, said its sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., "is to shrink the federal real property footprint and save billions of taxpayer dollars by selling what we don't need and better utilizing what we keep."

The federal government, he said "has a horrible track record of selling properties that aren't being used. In fact, we sold 82 properties in the last 25 years."

He cited estimates that in the 2009 budget year the federal government wasted more than $1.7 billion in operating costs for underused buildings and that his bill could save taxpayers $15 billion over the next decade.

Denham cites as examples of government waste a courthouse in Los Angeles that was proposed more than a decade ago but never built despite the spending of tens of millions on design and administration costs; and the Old Post Office building, a landmark in downtown Washington D.C., that is now vacant and costs $6.5 million a year to maintain.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., said federal executive branch agencies control some 429,000 buildings, and that an Office of Management and Budget report estimated that in 2007 the government held $18 billion in unneeded property. He also pointed to a Congressional Research Service study that found that in 2009 the government spent $134 million to maintain some 10,000 unneeded buildings.

Denham's bill would form a nine-member Civilian Property Realignment Commission to consolidate federal government properties. As in the BRAC process, Congress can approve or disapprove the commission recommendations en bloc only, decreasing the possibility of political fighting over specific properties.

Within six months of enactment, the commission would be charged with coming up with plans to sell at least five high-value federal properties worth at least $500 million.

The board would not have jurisdiction over military installations, properties deemed essential to national security and national parks.

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