National Politics

California congressman tries again to get U.S. to sell its surplus properties

Congressman Jeff Denham speaks in Turlock, California, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Congressman Jeff Denham speaks in Turlock, California, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.

The federal government would shed some of its 254,000 buildings under a long-stalled bill being revived by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

Resurrecting a potentially important but unglamorous effort, Denham is pushing revised legislation designed to speed the sale or transfer of surplus federal assets. He’s gained new allies, yet faces familiar hurdles.

“Like anything else, there are always challenges working with the Senate,” Denham acknowledged in an interview.

The challenges, though, go beyond the Senate, making Denham’s stop-and-start, five-year-long effort to pass surplus federal asset legislation a bit of a case study in the workings of Capitol Hill. Patience, persistence and flexibility are all required, but even they do not guarantee success.

My bill will save us billions . . . so that taxpayers no longer have to foot the bill for keeping the lights on in empty buildings.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock

Denham’s Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act of 2016, introduced earlier this month, targets at least some of the 2.5 billion square feet of building space and associated real estate that the federal government owns and operates at a cost that exceeded $22 billion in 2014.

The legislation would establish a Public Buildings Reform Board whose members would have six years to identify unneeded, surplus federal properties suitable for sale, valued at at least $8 billion. The legislation also requires the General Services Administration to compile a new, comprehensive database of all federal properties.

“Unused and under-utilized federal properties have been draining on our economy for years,” Denham said on introducing the bill.

The federal government’s stock of surplus property, for instance, included as of January a 5.2-acre parcel in Redding, California, and, about 480 miles south, a 5-acre parcel in Kern County. Both are undeveloped.

In California, a database shows the federal government owns 113 properties and leases 633.

The Denham bill excludes some property, reflecting the political give-and-take that preceded its introduction. Military installations, post offices and buildings used for “agricultural, recreational or conservation purposes” are exempted, as are properties dealing with “flood control, reclamation or power projects.”

By making what Denham called some other minor adjustments, he recently secured the support of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which advocates on behalf of a politically marginalized population with a stake in the issue. A 1987 law gives homeless assistance organizations right of first refusal on surplus federal property.

“Having them on board sends a strong signal,” Denham said.

In another hint of compromise, Denham introduced the legislation with the support of three House Democratic co-sponsors, from Oregon, Indiana and Maryland. These same Democrats voted against Denham’s previous bill.

“I cannot support this legislation so long as it contains provisions that would be harmful to the homeless,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said during the Feb. 6, 2012, debate. He is a co-sponsor of this year’s bill.

Not all hurdles have yet been cleared, though. While the Obama administration has not yet taken a position on the new bill, it opposed Denham’s previous legislation in part because it thought the measure excluded too many properties. The new bill has similar exclusions.

It “would therefore limit the potential savings that could be achieved by aggressively pursuing real estate reform,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said of the earlier bill’s myriad exclusions.

Comparable legislation has been introduced in the Senate, by a lawmaker whose own political standing might affect the bill’s future. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is by many accounts one of the Senate’s most vulnerable members facing re-election this year.

Legislatively, Johnson’s vulnerability can cut several ways. His fellow Senate Republicans might have an incentive to help him score a Capitol Hill victory, but Democrats might be tempted to thwart him so he can be labeled ineffective.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10