Rep. Denham targets underused federal buildings to cut government waste

Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) has spent his first term trying to shrink the size of government — literally.

As chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, he was behind a recent bill to hasten the disposal of buildings owned by the government that sit vacant, sometimes for decades.

Citing an estimate that the federal government has sold only 82 properties over the last quarter century, Denham said he was “shocked by the waste” he found while crafting the bill. 

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“I had suspicions but never a clear idea of how bad it really is,” he said. “We are just not good at selling properties. There wasn’t even a complete list [of facilities] available to us, and inefficiency in how buildings are occupied is not reported.”

His measure, which passed the House in February with 21 Democratic votes, will save at least $500 million in the year after its adoption, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Some estimates put the plan’s revenues in the billions with related federal property sales.

Denham pointed to the Old Post Office building in downtown Washington as an example. 

The Romanesque Revival landmark occupies an entire city block on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, and though it costs more than $6 million annually to maintain, much of it is in disrepair.

Under pressure from Denham and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the General Services Administration recently weighed bids from several major hotel chains hoping to redevelop the property. 

The final choice was a subsidiary of the Trump Organization, which will partner with a California private equity firm to turn the historic building into a 250-room luxury hotel.

“It’s nice to see that there was so much focus on this one project,” Denham said.

He noted that rival bidders as Waldorf Astoria and Marriott have expressed interest in other historic — and vacant — federal properties around the country. 

“Not only will this create more than 300 jobs, but it will take the Old Post Office, one of our national beauties, and allow people to utilize it,” he said.

As a California state senator, Denham earned praise from Sacramento’s most aggressive fiscal hawks for opposing tax increases and directing attention to mismanaged state properties.

He takes a similarly aggressive stance on the high-speed rail system backed by California voters in 2008 to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The project could ultimately cost $100 billion, or three times its original price tag.

Though Denham supported the plan as a state senator, he recently authored an amendment barring federal highway dollars from going to the project.

The measure passed the Transportation Committee and was included in Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) highway bill, which has been sent back to the drawing board, making the amendment’s fate uncertain.

“My frustration with the [high-speed rail] project is that it has changed without any spending restraint involved,” said Denham, who blames the rail authority for using “faulty numbers” in its original cost estimate.

“I actually supported [the project] when I was in the state Senate,” he said. “I think I was the deciding vote to get it out on the ballot. It’s something I would like to see, and it’s something I would use if it was cost effective.

“But … at some point you’ve got to say, ‘Where is the business plan? Where are the private investors? Where are all the things you promised the voters?’

“I was reluctant to oppose it until I saw how grossly they were mismanaging the project.”

To reduce costs, Denham wants the federal government to waive the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and allow California’s equivalent — known as CEQA — to govern the project alone.

The California statute mandates actions state and local agencies must take to ensure the environment is protected. Denham called it “the strongest environmental policy in the nation.”

“So why go through the same process twice?” he said.

Construction on the railway is expected to begin in early 2013 just south of Denham’s district, which takes in part of California’s Central Valley and stretches east into the Sierra Nevada.

It also includes Yosemite National Park, which Denham said provides him with a “unique perspective” on public lands policy.

“I’ve been able to work with very, very liberal members that have parks issues in their districts,” he said. “It’s been a good opportunity to get members of different political philosophies together on things we all want to see preserved.”

Denham’s positive tone toward bipartisanship sets him apart from most of his freshman colleagues.

He is quick to point out that he has “a lot of Democrat friends” in both chambers. Many, including California Reps. Laura Richardson, Jackie Speier, Judy Chu and Karen Bass, are fellow veterans of the California Legislature.

“I’ve had a very good record of working with Republicans and Democrats to get something done,” he said.

That attitude promises to help him this year as he competes in the state’s newly drawn 10th district.

His opponent is Democrat Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut whose parents were immigrant farm workers. Though Democrats have only a slight registration advantage under the new lines, the district is 40 percent Hispanic.

Denham said he is confident about his chances, and rejected a recent prediction from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the seat will be a win for Democrats. 

“They’ve targeted me for years, so I’m not worried about it,” he said. “The people in my district know who I am.”