The federal government may finally be getting smaller... literally

Interested in smaller government? It’s a key premise of conservatism but actually shrinking the size of the federal behemoth is far easier said than done. One area where progress could be made however is in getting rid of some of the unused federal buildings and property which are maintained on the taxpayer dime but sit empty and abandoned. (And there are a lot of them.) It’s a subject which has been brought up in Congress many times but we never seem to be able to find bipartisan support to kick the habit.

Perhaps that’s about to change. A bill designed to transfer much of this property off the federal rolls has finally cleared both chambers of Congress and will go to the White House for approval. (Government Executive)

After more than four years of back-and-forth with the White House budget office, Congress on Saturday passed bipartisan legislation aimed at streamlining the disposal of unneeded federal properties.

The Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (H.R. 4465), which cleared the House in May and the Senate this weekend, would require the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration to improve the inventory of excess properties by creating a new database based on agency reports of eligible sites.

In addition, it would set up a six-year Public Buildings Reform Board to use standards created by OMB to prepare a report that identifies five additional properties that could be sold on the open market, eventually to generate billions in revenue.

How does the incoming administration feel about this sort of shrinkage? Previous indications from the President Elect may give reason to hope that he wants to continue on this path. Further, the nomination of Ryan Zinke to Interior might also signal something along these lines. Zinke is a big fan of public access to federal lands, so why would he oppose returning some of that property? (Washington Post)

A lifelong hunter and fisherman, the 55-year-old Zinke has defended public access to federal lands even though he frequently votes against environmentalists on issues ranging from coal extraction to oil and gas drilling. This summer, he quit his post as a member of the GOP platform-writing committee after the group included language that would have transferred federal land ownership to the states.

The question of how much open land the federal government eats up is separate but related issue from empty offices and warehouses, but it deserves a fresh look next year. Zinke would seem to be of the right mindset for that sort of change.

Returning to the original subject, these aren’t trivial numbers of properties we’re talking about. And the amount of money being spent on them is significant as well. If you’ve never looked into the actual figures, brace for impact. We’re spending $1.7 billion a year to maintain 770,000 empty buildings, and that doesn’t even touch on the amount of federally controlled wilderness areas on the rolls. (LA Times)

The federal government spends more than $1.7 billion a year to maintain 770,000 empty buildings while other agencies are leasing or buying new space, and Rep. Jeff Denham is fed up.

“This is something that hasn’t been handled in Republican or Democrat administrations because it’s too big of a bureaucracy,” Denham (R-Turlock) said in an interview in his office. “There’s no incentive for the agencies to sell.”

He said if politicians are going to talk about cutting government waste, selling empty buildings is a good start.

A good start indeed. This isn’t just a matter of the raw figures on how much we’re spending. (And on that note we need to stop thinking of costs such as this in terms of it being only a couple of billion dollars. That’s a lot of money and there are countless pockets of “a couple billion” being wasted every year.) Taking empty, abandoned buildings and returning them to the private sector puts them back on the tax rolls and allows industry to make use of them, hopefully to create additional jobs in the process. This sort of seed corn effect can pay off in a much larger way than simply trimming a couple billion off of the maintenance budget.

Even if some of these properties are turned over and wind up in the hands of non-profit groups for homeless shelters (which is one proposal in the bill under consideration) that’s still vastly better than allowing them to sit idle. At least they’re being used for something in that case and the non-profits operating them won’t have to seek facilities elsewhere.

I’m not trying to go all smiles, unicorns and rainbows on you here, but it’s about time we had some good news on the conservative agenda. This may be a smaller step in the grand scheme of things, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.