WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would speed the disposal of surplus federal property, a mundane-sounding but potentially significant money saver that's also a notable freshman-year success for its California author.
The bill, which still faces some impediments, would set up a nine-member commission that would identify big-ticket, surplus properties ripe for sale.
"The federal government has a terrible track record of selling property that isn't being used," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. "This is an opportunity to do better."
Denham, who's the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees public buildings, modeled his bill after the military base-closing commissions that have targeted excess military facilities. The basic idea is to have independent experts make suggestions that are relatively protected from parochial pressures.
More than 350 military bases have been closed under the commission procedure since 1988, including such major California facilities as Mather, Castle and McClellan Air Force bases in the Central Valley.
The civilian version set up by Denham's bill would identify at least five unneeded federal properties that could be sold off for a minimum total of $500 million. If the president accepts the recommendations, Congress would vote on them.
A partial inventory identifies 12,000 domestic properties now considered surplus, in addition to 45,190 "underutilized" buildings that cost $1.6 billion annually to operate.
The House approved the Civilian Property Realignment Act by 259-164, after defeating a Democratic effort to exempt Department of Veterans Affairs properties from the closure procedure. All but one of the lawmakers who voted "no" were Democrats.
"It's certainly disappointing that politics was interjected into it this late in the process," Denham said, "but it's been bipartisan all the way through."
Democrats, though, say they're still uncomfortable with some of the bill's specifics, even if they favor the general idea of a surplus property commission.
"There just remain a few I's to dot and a few T's to cross to ensure that this can garner the support of the bipartisan majority in this body," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
The bill already has changed in myriad ways from its original form. Initially, for instance, it prohibited construction of a third federal courthouse in Los Angeles and ordered that the land purchased for the project be sold. The version approved Tuesday dropped this provision.
Denham also dropped a provision, closely watched in the District of Columbia, that would have forced the Federal Trade Commission to move from its prized downtown location so that the National Gallery of Art would have more room.
The surplus property commission would cost an estimated $20 million, and an additional $62 million is budgeted to clean up the designated properties and prepare them for sale.
The Obama administration has recommended a similar commission procedure for handing surplus properties, but the White House cautioned this week that it doesn't yet support the House bill. In part, the administration opposes the measure's streamlining of certain environmental reviews.
The current surplus property list includes 1,151 federal properties in California. Many are in national parks or forests, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks.
The property board wouldn't deal with military or national security sites, national parks or wildlife refuges.
The Senate hasn't yet passed a companion measure.
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