One Good Idea

Raising Money with Government Garage Sales

Selling unused land, military bases, and other assets could help decrease federal spending.

This illustration can only be used with the Molly Mirhashem piece that originally ran in the 4/18/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
National Journal
April 17, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

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.

—Molly Mirhashem

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.

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