Politics & Government

Momentum builds for panel to dump surplus U.S. properties

WASHINGTON — California Republicans and White House Democrats agree that an independent commission offers the best hope for getting rid of unneeded federal properties.

The bipartisan unity demonstrated at a congressional hearing Thursday builds momentum for the proposed civilian property realignment commission, which could end up targeting numerous surplus government sites in California.

"I believe the potential to save billions of dollars is real," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, "and our challenge is to create a system that will enable that to happen."

For freshman Denham, the proposal could also prove beneficial, as an early demonstration of his ability to legislate in what's often a poisonously divided Congress.

"This offers a genuine opportunity for a bipartisan solution," enthused Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the liberal delegate who represents the District of Columbia.

Chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees public buildings, Denham last week introduced a bill to establish a civilian property commission modeled after the commissions used to close military bases. The proposed nine-member panel would identify unneeded properties and essentially present plans for congressional approval.

The plans, for instance, might include consolidating employees in certain locations, shedding expensive leases and selling some properties quickly.

The Obama administration has proposed a similar idea, though with some differences in detail; for instance, in the size of the commission or in the handling of post office buildings. The basic concepts, though, are akin.

"Both proposals build on the practices of a proven approach," said Daniel Werfel, controller of the White House Office of Management and Budget. "Both hold the same core values."

Denham and the Obama administration derived their inspiration from the Defense Base Realignment and Closure commission idea used five times since 1988. The basic principle is to combine an independent panel with tight deadlines and a strict up-or-down congressional vote, to thwart filibustering or cherry picking on Capitol Hill.

"We have the right solution to generate savings," Denham said, adding that "it's important that we get this right from the get-go."

A partial inventory prepared by the Obama administration identifies 12,000 domestic U.S. properties now considered surplus, including 1,151 federal properties in California. Many of the named sites are in national parks or forests, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks and in the Los Padres and Stanislaus national forests.

The administration's inventory does not include every underutilized property that might be targeted by a civilian property commission, nor does it fully capture how the federal workforce might be realigned and re-housed to generate big savings.

The published online inventory, for instance, does not identify any sites at all in the cities of Sacramento, Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield or San Luis Obispo; in Modesto, there is only one surplus site listed, a 23,770-square foot downtown post office.

Many cities, though, could have federal buildings that don't have enough occupants even though they haven't been declared surplus. Office buildings that are less than 75 percent occupied are considered underutilized.

Denham and administration officials agree that shrinking the space used by federal employees, and ending costly long-term leases, is crucial to getting the really big savings.

"We can no longer continue to operate using the costly real property inventory of 60 years ago," Werfel said.