Two Senate committees got their chance today to question GSA leaders after two days of House hearings into the agency. Both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee—which met this morning—and the Appropriations Committee’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee—which controls the GSA budget, and met in the afternoon—called GSA Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini and Inspector General Brian Miller as witnesses. While the tone of today’s hearings was more civil (read “less shouting”) and the sessions were briefer than those of the past two days, Tangherlini and Miller continued to address hard-hitting questions that went to the core of GSA’s mission and how it intends to fulfill it.
Although it was scheduled before the scandal broke—and titled simply “Oversight Hearing on the General Services Administration,” the morning session was dominated by questions about spending abuses and an insistence that the agency ensures that they do not happen again by putting into place a layered system of accountability with multiple checks and balances.
Recounting examples of decades of abuses by GSA officials dating back to the Carter Administration, Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) urged Tangherlini to focus on changing how the agency does business and to make sure the right protections are put into place to prevent further scandals. “The latest misconduct at the General Services Administration makes me cringe,” she stated; “cringe for the taxpayers who expect every agency in their government to fulfill their mission with integrity. And it makes me cringe for the good people at GSA who work so hard every day and have been humiliated by a few bad actors. To those who betrayed the public trust, let me be clear: The party is over.”
In response to questions from both Republican and Democratic members of the committee, Miller said he has uncovered and is investigating additional questionable practices in the GSA, noting that “the ultimate deterrent is criminal prosecution.” After his report was made public, he and Tangherlini sent an open letter to all GSA employees asking them to report any other abuses or questionable activities on a hotline the GSA has set up. “They have not been shy” in doing so, added Tangherlini.
“Don’t listen to those voices that say you can’t change,” Boxer told Tangherlini. “We have no excuses, going forward, not to fix this nightmare,” she continued, calling on the acting administrator to “be more sweeping in your reforms perhaps than people will be comfortable with.”
When asked by Senator John Barrasso (R-Wy.) whether GSA has outlived its usefulness as a federal agency, Tangherlini responded that “we need to create the appropriate sets of checks and balances, the appropriate sets of oversight systems, the clear lines of accountability that can make sure that this kind of thing can’t happen again. That having been said, having a single, accountable agency that can aggregate the expenses of the government and use the scale of the government to get the best possible price for the government—I think that that has value today as much as it did back when the Hoover Commission first proposed it and President Truman set up the GSA.”
Boxer repeatedly commended Miller, Tangherlini, and GSA Deputy Administrator Susan Brita (who attended the hearing but did not testify) for being “the good guys,” and urged them to make the most of this opportunity to permanently repair GSA. “Let’s show the world—let’s show our taxpayers—that we’re going to fix this, and that although this is a horrible situation… we’re going to change it and we’re going to make sure we change it for good,” she said in closing.
The afternoon session, led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Il.), who chairs the Appropriations Committee’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee—with ranking member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) as the only other subcommittee member in attendance—was titled “General Services Administration: A Review of the Recent Inspector General Management Deficiency Report and an Assessment of the Fiscal Year 2013 GSA Funding Request,” and also had been planned well before the current spending scandal erupted. While Durbin began the hearing by stating that he was “outraged and embarrassed” by the scandal and the “highly troubling findings” revealed by the inspector general’s report, he also questioned Tangherlini about “GSA’s ability to fulfill its program obligations and the future space needs of federal agencies during a time of debt reduction.”
Miller told Durbin and Moran that his office had made a criminal referral to the Justice Department relating to the ongoing spending scandal. He did not explain what the referral was—saying only that he was working with the Department of Justice and that he was “specifically being nonspecific”—or if there would be additional referrals in the future.
Durbin’s hearing was the only one of the four to get into the “meat” of GSA activities. He questioned Tangherlini about the impacts of budget and appropriations decisions on ongoing federal building projects that have been stopped or delayed, including the Department of Homeland Security campus on the St. Elizabeths site, remediation efforts at the Denver Federal Center, and the Food and Drug Administration’s White Oak campus project. Durbin also asked Tangherlini about his views on the proposal to transfer the Federal Trade Commission headquarters building to the National Gallery of Art and about the various “civilian BRAC” bills now being considered to dispose of excess federal real estate. While Tangherlini deferred providing detailed responses to these questions, he said that he is familiarizing himself with the issues and hoped to do so at a later date. With regard to the FTC/NGA controversy, he mentioned that he had met with the FTC commissioners and will meet tomorrow with “the interested member of Congress”—presumably John Mica (R-Fla.)—“to hear that side.”