Yeah, it was a testy hearing all right, just as the Biz Journal headline says: GSA sheds some light on FBI reversal in testy House hearing.
The House Oversight Committee called in GSA officials to explain their change in plans for replacing the FBI's decrepit headquarters building. After at least five years of feckless efforts to build a massive new FBI headquarters somewhere outside the beltway, the General Services Administration now prefers to demolish the old headquarters and build a smaller one on the same site.
That sounds good to me. The FBI headquarters will stay next to the Justice Department (of which it is a bureau, all pretense of being a separate agency aside), employee commutes and house-buying plans remain the same, and the GSA doesn't have to replace expensive specialized infrastructure that's already at the current site. What's not to like?
The answer depends on whether or not you're a Congressman from Fairfax County, Virginia, or Prince George's County, Maryland, the jurisdictions that have been lobbying for and drooling over and making promises about that multi-billion dollar new FBI campus for years. GSA's decision to keep it in the District rearranges the winners and losers rather drastically. I say it's a win for the taxpayers and the FBI, but that makes it a loss for the beltway real estate development and construction industries and the government-dependent economies in Fairfax and PG counties. It's also a loser for politicians in the District, whose tax base would be improved if the current FBI site were to be redeveloped as retail or hotel property.
The Committee's testiness was decidedly bipartisan, but the testiest of them all was the minority leader, my very own Congressman, Gerald Connolly (D-Va). He got the mic ten minutes into the session and bewailed the "body blow to public confidence” caused by GSA's change of mind, and the terrible burden of uncertainty it places on the long-suffering corporate big shots who sell buildings and real property development to the feds.
Oh, and the security! We can't forget about the security. The old Hoover building has no setback at all on that urban site, so very unlike the big sprawling campuses of the CIA, NSA, and all the other three-letter agencies. Has GSA no clue about security? At one point, Connolly suggested GSA should talk to the State Department about the overwhelming need for setback, if they won't take his word for it.
And the Trump! Don't forget him, either. GSA's old plan would have turned the vacated FBI site over to private developers who might, Connolly suggested, have built something there that would “directly compete” with the new Trump Hotel that is right across the street. I find it hard to believe there is enough high-end market in DC to support more than one hotel with rates in the $500-600 a night range and one-week minimum stays. But, if you must interpret GSA's decision through the lens of how it might benefit Trump's businesses, go right ahead. [Footnote: the Trump Hotel is also a GSA property, previously known as the Old Post Office Building, which coincidentally was used by the FBI as overflow space in the days before the Hoover Building.]
Most of the Committee's insinuations and insults were directed at Dan Mathews, Commissioner of the GSA's Public Buildings Service and the official who bore the main responsibility for standing in the way of congressmen like Connolly who are starving for a huge meal of federal bacon to bring back home just like West Virginia's Senator Byrd did in the old days, unashamedly and on a grand scale.
In his remarks, Mathews laid out some persuasive facts before his unappreciative audience. Facts like, the FBI has reduced its program requirements through consolidation of shared admin functions with its parent Justice Department, and will reduce its headquarters staffing from 10,000-some to 8,000-some, thereby making the current site a viable option for a smaller footprint. Anyway, the decision to give up on building a new site in Virginia or Maryland was forced upon GSA by a lack of sufficient funding to sign a contract with a private developer for a land-swap, and that decision was made back in July 2017.
In his first public remarks since Monday, Mathews explained during the hearing that the GSA came to its new recommendation after the agency canceled the prior search in July. Mathews, who previously served as a senior staffer to another House committee overseeing the GSA, said his agency canceled that search because it did not have sufficient appropriations to award a contract for the multibillion-dollar effort, which had been expected to cost nearly $3.6 billion.
The FBI then adjusted its requirements, recommending that it would only need room for about 8,300 headquarters staff, not 10,600, in a new facility. That adjustment lowered the GSA's cost estimate to around $3.3 billion and also opened up more options. He said the Pennsylvania Avenue site would not have been able to accommodate the larger number of workers but can be redeveloped to house the smaller number. The balance would be shifted to other FBI facilities across the country.
"All I can say, Mr. Mathews, is I just do not feel your answers hold up," Connolly said. "I think they contradict, as I said, six years of laying the groundwork for a different rationale for where it ought to be located, the value of consolidation, the danger of lack of consolidation, and the legitimate physical security concerns. And the rationales coming out of the GSA do not add up."
Connolly said it may be necessary for the GSA's inspector general to look more closely into the recommendation and added that the episode "is not a good moment for the GSA, and what I really worry about, besides process, is the mission of the FBI and, frankly, how it can be impeded by this decision."
Step off, old man. What you've been "laying the groundwork" for is a huge federal bacon-drop in Springfield, Virginia, and I don't think the mission of the FBI was your first concern.
In fairness to Connolly, let me say that his fellow elected officials in Maryland are just as avaricious and Trump-obsessed as their counterparts in Virginia.
Prince George's County spent over $1M pursuing the FBI headquarters, county economic development head David Iannucci said. County Executive Rushern Baker, who is running for Maryland governor, also questioned the administration's motivations.
"This decision is beyond logic but it is clearly political," Baker said in a statement. "The Trump Administration is now proposing to spread FBI offices across the country to states like Alabama, Idaho, and West Virginia — all states that voted for President Trump."
I like this business of snatching the bacon away from under the nose of my esteemed Member of Congress. Whether or not he gets his meal in the end will probably depend on the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections. Meanwhile, the mission of the FBI will continue to suffer as it makes do in that complete disaster of a headquarters building.