Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, has proposed a way to decrease federal spending: a bill that would spur more “federal garage sales” of unused land, military bases, and other assets held by various departments. I recently spoke with Bell, a former staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, about the idea, more formally known as “federal-assets sales.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
What is a federal-assets sale?
(Illustration by Matt Blunt)The federal government owns a great deal of land and buildings, and has no use for a lot of it. The Bureau of Land Management calls this type of land “disposal land.” In many cases, it’s more of a hassle to keep it up than it is to sell it. A federal-assets sale opens up that land and other assets to a bidding process.
The greatest example for the use of this disposal land was in Clark County, Nevada. The city of Las Vegas and the county came to an agreement with BLM about how much the land was worth; they paid them that price, and now it has been very much developed.
There’s also something called the Base Realignment and Consolidation Process (BRAC) for unused military bases. In Roswell, New Mexico, there was an Air Force base called Walker Air Force Base. The Defense Department closed it down in 1967, and it was considered quite a shock to Roswell economically—at first. But there’s now a thriving industrial park on the site of the base, and they have flights that come in using the base’s old landing strips.
How exactly does selling these assets bring in money for the federal government?
Over time, these sales are beneficial for the federal government in three ways—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly: First, bureaucrats who are trying to keep track of this land no longer have to keep track of it. Second, the unused land is of almost no value to the federal government, but it is often of value to other people in the area, whether they’re ranchers, cities, or states. Third, because this is a bidding process, in most cases the federal government gets some money out of something that is costing them money.
The Congressional Budget Office conducted a report on federal-assets sales. What did it determine?
Their basic conclusion was that it would take money to get these assets sales off the ground and that the estimated profits had been overstated—so the federal government wouldn’t make much money. But I strongly disagree. This may be true in the short-term, but these are things that save money over time.
Does part of the resistance to the idea stem from the risk of eliminating jobs at closed bases?
Yes, it’s a matter of jobs. Say there’s a military facility near you, and a lot of people live in your town or your county because of that—and all of a sudden it closes. But what is very troubling is that there are facilities open that have no mission. They don’t even have planes at the bases. And you only get to the BRAC after the military itself has taken a look at the land and evaluated the assets. So, it’s not like you pull a name out of a hat and say, “Oh, let’s close this one down.” This is a very lengthy and well-thought-out process.