House lawmakers demand answers on FBI headquarters reversal
Daniel J. Sernovitz
House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushed back Thursday morning against the federal government's surprise recommendation to abandon a yearslong effort to shift the FBI's headquarters from downtown D.C. in favor of building a new home for the agency on the site of its current one.
In a sometimes heated subcommittee hearing, Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Gerald Connolly, D-Va., promised to press the General Services Administration to disclose documents and a fuller explanation for how it concluded the best option was to build anew on the Pennsylvania Avenue NW site of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. The recommendation, in a report to a Senate committee on Monday, followed the GSA's decision in July to cancel a search that would have shifted all of the agency's headquarters staff to a site in either Greenbelt, Landover or Springfield.
"I will not let this rest as it relates to the FBI building and the decisions that were made there," Meadows, chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform's government operations subcommittee, said at the close of Thursday's hearing. "This is a bipartisan issue, and I can tell you that before you proceed ahead, this committee wants to know all the decisions that went into the new decision that has been announced. I don't agree with it. I can be convinced, but at this particular point, based on the information in this hearing, I am not convinced."
The subcommittee scheduled the hearing for an update on GSA activities, its first since Emily Murphy and Dan Mathews were installed as the agency's administrator and public buildings service commissioner, before Monday's announcement. It had hoped to probe a number of issues that were put on the back burner to focus more intensely on the FBI headquarters, which drew concerns from lawmakers representing D.C., Maryland and Virginia, among other members of the subcommittee.
GSA officials declined to comment immediately following the hearing. In an emailed statement later in the day, Murphy said the agency holds to its recommendation but will work to provide more information to lawmakers as is requested.
"GSA takes the opinions of our oversight committees seriously and we look forward to providing them with the information that they need related to the joint report," Murphy said in her response.
In his first public remarks since Monday, Mathews explained during the hearing that the GSA came to its new recommendation after the agency canceled the prior search in July. Mathews, who previously served as a senior staffer to another House committee overseeing the GSA, said his agency canceled that search because it did not have sufficient appropriations to award a contract for the multibillion-dollar effort, which had been expected to cost nearly $3.6 billion.
The FBI then adjusted its requirements, recommending that it would only need room for about 8,300 headquarters staff, not 10,600, in a new facility. That adjustment lowered the GSA's cost estimate to around $3.3 billion and also opened up more options. He said the Pennsylvania Avenue site would not have been able to accommodate the larger number of workers but can be redeveloped to house the smaller number. The balance would be shifted to other FBI facilities across the country.
"There was a distinct advantage to the current site when you have a smaller footprint," Mathews said. The FBI's headquarters staff is now spread over more than a dozen locations across Greater Washington, and Mathews said keeping the agency's main hub in downtown D.C. would mean those employees would continue to have access to the same level of resources they have long enjoyed with the Hoover building.
The explanation did not go over well with subcommittee members including Connolly, the ranking member, who said the logic did not hold up to reasoning and raised other questions. Among them is whether the decision benefits President Donald Trump's financial interest in the Trump International Hotel located across the street from Hoover by ensuring the FBI site is not redeveloped with a competing hotel. The bigger issue, Connolly said, is how the GSA concluded the need for a consolidated campus with all of its headquarters in one spot is no longer a top priority.
"All I can say, Mr. Mathews, is I just do not feel your answers hold up," Connolly said. "I think they contradict, as I said, six years of laying the groundwork for a different rationale for where it ought to be located, the value of consolidation, the danger of lack of consolidation, and the legitimate physical security concerns. And the rationales coming out of the GSA do not add up."
Connolly said it may be necessary for the GSA's inspector general to look more closely into the recommendation and added that the episode "is not a good moment for the GSA, and what I really worry about, besides process, is the mission of the FBI and, frankly, how it can be impeded by this decision."