House lawmakers push PBS reform bill through first hurdle

Friday - 9/21/2012, 7:51am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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House lawmakers want to freeze bonuses for Senior Executive Service members at the General Services Administration for the next two years.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management today approved the Public Buildings Reform Act of 2012 to change the way GSA manages federal leases and to improve accountability and transparency from the agency. Subcommittee members passed the freeze on bonuses through 2014 in the wake of the continued frustration over GSA's spending troubles.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), is one of the final pieces to the oversight of the Public Building Service in the post Western Regions Conference scandal era.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.)

"Chairman Mica and I have tried to craft common sense legislation that would reduce costs, improve oversight and management and ensure accountability in a way that will allow GSA to effectively carry out its mission," said Denham, during his opening statement at the subcommittee markup.

Workforce reductions

The bill focuses on two main areas: PBS reforms and GSA-wide oversight.

The specific changes to PBS would reduce the agency's workforce to 2008 levels, about a 10 percent cut.

It would require PBS to reduce its federal space inventory by 1 million square feet per year through 2016 and to offset any request for new space with an equivalent reduction of space through 2016.

The subcommittee also passed three amendments, including one to require GSA to take into account the full lifetime cost of a building before building or leasing them. Another amendment also wants to ensure GSA uses the most up-to-date building codes.

"Rather than considering just the upfront costs, GSA should consider the total lifecycle cost of ownership of their buildings, which will improve performance and save money in the long term," said Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), who sponsored the provision. "This amendment requires GSA, when building new buildings, to use lifecycle cost analysis of the overall spending on design, construction, operations and maintenance."

Beyond the PBS provisions, the bill would prohibit SES members from receiving extra money based on performance reviews. GSA acting administrator Dan Tangherlini already cut by 85 percent the number of bonuses for SES through 2013.

The legislation would require GSA to report to committee 30 days before entering into any agreements for a conference involving the Public Buildings Service.

New reports to Congress

It would require GSA to submit to Capitol Hill detailed budgets of administrative costs, including salaries, bonuses, travel, training and conferences. Among the other things, the bill would restore congressional oversight of large leases and property acquisitions, and require GSA to report to committee annually on a list of vacant properties and associated costs.

Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.)

Carnahan said he was not pleased with how Denham pushed the bill through the subcommittee.

"Today's bill was introduced roughly 24 hours ago and mandates significant changes in how PBS was supposed to operate, while simultaneously eliminating roughly 10 percent of their workforce," he said. "I would've hoped members on this side of the aisle would've had time to review the bill and make recommendations about reforming GSA's PBS prior to this time."

Carnahan, however, didn't vote against the reform bill despite his concerns.

The Public Buildings Reform Act also drew concerns from observers of GSA.

Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, said the proposals to freeze bonuses and reduce personnel levels are directly related to GSA's spending problems.

"These are, I think candidly, over reactions to the issues we've had in GSA. Certainly, there are some SES employees that seem to have gotten bonuses that were more substantial than they should've been," Allen said. "But a number of those employees are also no longer with the agency. It's not really fair to punish the entire SES for the actions of a few people."

He added cutting the PBS workforce and then loading those remaining with several new reports would impact the agency's ability to meet its core mission.

As for the other more building-centric reforms, Carnahan said many mirror proposals from the Obama administration, including reducing federal space and cutting back individual agency ability to agree to their own leases.

Bob Suda, a former GSA official and now a president of Suda and Associates, said many of the reforms seem fair and on target, with the exception of the bonus freeze.

"The bill is pretty straightforward. It made a lot of sense," he said. "The Hill was very favorable and it could have been a lot worse. I think they hit home with a number of various topics."

Sending a signal

As for GSA, spokesman Dan Cruz said the agency continues to make changes to how it's organized.

"For the last five months, under the new leadership, GSA has moved aggressively to make its operations more efficient and create savings for the entire federal government," Cruz said in an emailed statement. "As part of the top-to-bottom review, which examined every aspect of GSA, the agency has implemented a series of reforms, from travel and conference oversight to developing new tools to dispose of our unneeded and underutilized properties. GSA has also announced a new head of the Public Buildings Service, instituted a targeted hiring freeze, and cut bonuses. This review is an ongoing process and we continue to welcome responsible Congressional oversight."

Allen said the bill may just be something to send a signal to GSA.

"By telegraphing some of the expectations they have in this bill, they are letting GSA know these are some things we think you should focus on," Allen said. "It gives GSA some time to react to some of the provisions in here and instead of waiting for the legislation to pass, go ahead and do some of them. It may forestall or reduce the need for an actual bill."

There is no word when the full committee will mark it up, and Mica and Denham may be setting the tone for the next session of Congress.

Additionally, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said last week after the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on GSA's reforms that she's not convinced legislation is needed quite yet. She said she wanted to give GSA a chance for the reforms to take hold.

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