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A House Republican has stepped up his battle with leaders of the Federal Trade Commission over a year-old plan to move the regulatory agency out of its ornate, 75-year-old headquarters to expand exhibit space for the National Gallery of Art.
On Thursday, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., raised the issue at a meeting with Dan Tangherlini, the General Services Administration’s acting chief. All five FTC commissioners sent a statement on Wednesday opposing the move as expensive and wasteful, writing at the invitation of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.
Mica and the GSA chief met to discuss more general issues relating to the recent scandal over GSA’s lavish spending on a 2010 Las Vegas training conference.
“We had a productive meeting and discussed some of the challenges facing the GSA,” Mica said in a statement to Government Executive. “We will be working with the acting administrator to ensure the agency operates in a responsible manner. I also briefed him on the pending proposal and request regarding the FTC, and given the GSA’s current circumstances, I agreed to allow more time for the agency to respond to the committee’s request for information.”
On March 8, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a resolution asking GSA for a layout of how FTC employees could be located in 370,000 square feet of space in the privately-owned Constitution Center in Southwest Washington, which already houses the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The resolution asks GSA to weigh two proposals for housing FTC; one would move the headquarters and two satellite offices to the Constitution Center and the other would leave one satellite office at its current location on M Street NW. It asks GSA to factor in use of the Constitution Center’s common areas, such as its cafeteria, as well as office space for full-time contractors but not interns. It originally gave the beleaguered agency 30 days to comply.
Mica has sought to increase exhibit space for the Art Gallery directly across from FTC’s headquarters at the confluence of Constitution Ave. and Pennsylvania Ave., and the Gallery has stated that it could raise private funds to remodel the new space.
The Mica proposal was blasted, as in the past, by all five FTC commissioners -- Chairman Jon Leibowitz, J. Thomas Rosch, Edith Ramirez, Julie Brill, and Maureen Ohlhausen. “Instead of saving the government money, the proposed transfer would needlessly forfeit a valuable federal building and could initially cost well over $100 million, with substantial additional costs incurred for years to come,” they wrote. “Such an unprecedented giveaway would be contrary to the interests of American taxpayers, especially in this time of fiscal austerity.”
FTC leaders argued the gallery’s intention to raise private funds notwithstanding, taxpayers still would be on the hook for maintenance and operations funding. They said the move alone would cost from $70 million to $83 million, because of the need for “replication of the FTC’s sophisticated Internet and forensic labs, litigation support technology, and pre-merger filing databases, as well as the agency’s data center.”
They added that the move to commercial space and the need to pay rent would deny the Federal Building Fund $6 million and eat into FTC’s appropriation, while opening the possibility of being forced to move yet again in the future. “At a time when all federal agencies face budget cuts,” the commissioners wrote, “the FTC is particularly concerned that the agency might have to bear the wholly unnecessary cost of being moved out of the FTC building and into commercial space.”
Mica’s staff said he is skeptical that FTC’s cost-per-square foot estimates for the move are accurate and in line with modern office planning guidelines.
FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan noted the estimated cost for moving the data center alone is $24 million to $34 million, and there would be additional costs for replicating the computer forensic lab, both of which might have an impact on the per-square-foot estimates.
National Gallery spokeswoman Deborah Ziska said, “We’re fully in support of the proposal, but it’s up to Congress.” On the issue of taxpayer funds being required for operations and maintenance, she said this happens on all gallery property, but “we expect that operations and maintenance costs would be fully offset, if we were to move into the new space, by future off-site lease savings.”