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GSA Criticism Mirrors Fed Frustrations

Revelations over a lavish Las Vegas conference held by the General Services Administration have provided colorful headlines and drama-filled hearings in past weeks.

But freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, which has jurisdiction over the agency, wants to leverage the headlines in his quest to do away with the GSA outright.

“I believe that we need to completely abolish the GSA. It’s one of the agencies that has outlived its usefulness and has had so much fraud and waste and neglect that it’s time to go,” Denham said in an interview.

The Las Vegas conference has exacerbated long-standing complaints from lawmakers who chafe at the GSA’s independence from the appropriations process. A bill introduced by Denham last week would require annual audits of the GSA, inviting comparisons to the “audit the Fed” campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and others.

The Las Vegas conference might ultimately provoke a crisis of legitimacy for the GSA. But in general, Members of Congress have had difficulty changing the status quo for the Federal Reserve and other federal agencies with independent revenue streams.

“I’ve been trying to reform GSA for years,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the second-most-senior Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “I am not a fan of the GSA.”

In fiscal 2011, the GSA took in $11 billion from its Federal Buildings Fund, much of it from rent charged to federal agencies for using federally owned buildings that are operated and maintained by the GSA.

Denham called those revenues a “slush fund” because “it’s an internal fund that does not go through the normal budgetary process.”

DeFazio recalled his own experience renting office space in a courthouse from the agency.

“I have a budget, and my budget is going to reimburse the GSA to pay for something that’s already paid for. I mean, does that make sense? No, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” DeFazio said.

Overall, the GSA spent $20.9 billion in fiscal 2011. Its revenues were also $20.9 billion — only $241 million of which was appropriated by Congress. The agency has $33 billion in net assets and more than 13,000 employees.

Proponents say the agency saves taxpayers money by streamlining the acquisition process and managing federal buildings.

“The purpose of the U.S. General Services Administration is to save tax dollars by efficiently procuring supplies and services for federal agencies and effectively managing the federal real estate portfolio,” said Adam Elkington, a GSA spokesman.

“In a time of tightening budgets, there has rarely been a greater need for the services and savings GSA provides to taxpayers. As a single dedicated agency, GSA provides a strong value proposition to the Federal Government — allowing customer agencies to focus resources on their core mission.”

But Denham points to federal buildings that are vacant or underutilized, costing taxpayers millions in maintenance.

“They’ve identified, by their numbers, 14,000 properties that are underutilized or vacant properties that they should be selling off,” Denham said, adding that the agency has sold only 82 properties over the past 10 years.

Denham said he and his staff have discovered numerous vacant buildings that aren’t on the GSA’s list, some with hundreds of thousands of square feet, in cities across the country, including Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C.

In February 2011, Denham and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) held a hearing at a vacant building — the Annex of the Old Post Office Building — that sits adjacent to the National Mall.

One year later, again in February, the two lawmakers held another hearing there — the building was still vacant.

However, until revelations about the Las Vegas conference came out April 2, Denham’s campaign had largely failed to gain any traction.

“It hasn’t been sexy until now,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s been waging a battle to learn more about the agency’s finances, including making 12 separate requests for information.

In the short term, Denham said to expect a number of bills to focus on some of the colorful expenses that ran up the cost of the Las Vegas conference.

While Democrats joined Denham in his criticisms of the agency, they do not join him on wanting to get rid of the GSA altogether.

“That’s absurd,” said a spokesman for Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the GSA.

“Reforms? Yes. But to throw the baby out with the bathwater? No,” Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said.

“There’s a lot of good, hardworking government employees there that have the best interest of the American taxpayer at heart,” Rahall said.

“If you abolish it, who would manage the federal properties?” DeFazio asked.

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