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Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) yesterday pledged to revamp how federal agencies lease and buy property, citing billions of dollars in potential savings.

"This is an area that has been crying out to be addressed for years, and for one reason or another we haven't risen to the occasion in addressing it," he said. "On my watch, we're going to fix this problem. We're going to put in place a comprehensive solution to fixing this problem."

Yesterday's hearing -- held by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee that Carper chairs -- was the latest in a string of efforts to curb waste in the government's real estate portfolio. Earlier this year, the White House unveiled its proposal to create an independent board to make recommendations on consolidating office space and selling excess property. Legislation in both chambers has followed.

The Office of Management and Budget estimates that $15 billion can be saved through the administration's plan. The Congressional Budget Office is less optimistic; a recent cost estimate reported that the independent board would cost more than it would save over the next five years.

But officials from the Government Accountability Office and the General Services Administration agreed yesterday that improvements should be made to the federal leasing process, which allows some agencies with little real estate experience to lease their own office space. While the GSA follows detailed procurement procedures, other agencies sometimes lack such guidance and end up in expensive or unnecessary leases.

A notorious example is the Security and Exchange Commission's decision last year to enter into a lease costing more than $500,000 annually. It has since become clear that SEC officials overestimated the number of new employees needed to fulfill the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and that the space was unnecessary.

Under pressure from Congress, SEC officials agreed to give up their leasing authority and signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this week that enables GSA to handle future leases. Most of the space under the $500,000 lease has been handed over to other agencies, and SEC expects to parcel out the rest by the time the rent is due in 2013.

But at yesterday's hearing, subcommittee ranking member Scott Brown (R-Mass.) seemed frustrated that the SEC is avoiding the lease's price tag by distributing it among other federal agencies.

"Are we just repeating what we just went through?" he said. "I mean this is like 'Groundhog Day,' guys. I didn't even realize that. I guess if you keep digging like we have, you find more and more and more."

Like Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and the White House, Brown is putting his support behind an independent board to streamline the government's leasing and selling process. Brown's bill, S. 1503, the Civilian Property Realignment Act (CPRA), would establish an independent commission based on the military's Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Witnesses from GAO, GSA and the SEC told Brown and Carper at yesterday's hearing that such a bill would help the process.

"When you talk about building a consensus and making it bipartisan, I think CPRA is good start," said David Wise, GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues. "OMB [also] continues to work toward developing a strategy that helps rationalize the process."

But Carper seemed most concerned with budget scoring, which he said encourages agencies to enter short-term leases rather than long-term ownership. If Congress can fix that problem, he said, it might save billions of dollars that are sorely needed as lawmakers look to cut spending and pay off the deficit.

"This is not the sexiest topic to be holding a hearing on," he said, but "we're talking about a lot of money here. We're talking about a lot of money that is not being spent wisely."

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