A bill that would require all government office buildings to be at least 60 percent occupied passed the House this week, drawing a rebuke from the Biden administration, which called the mandated minimum “arbitrary.”

Just a few months ago, lawmakers in the Senate called out agencies including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Social Security Administration and the Small Business Administration whose buildings were nearly 90% vacant. A watchdog report tallied 17 total agencies government-wide that were at 25% capacity or less last year.

Now, the House has responded. The Utilizing Space Efficiently and Improving Technologies, or USE IT, Act, introduced by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., in 2023, passed the chamber 217-203 Tuesday. The vote was mostly along party lines, although six Democrats also voted in favor of the bill, including Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania.

The legislation, if approved in the Senate and signed by Biden, would require a minimum 2/3 occupancy rate in all federal buildings, which was generally the pre-pandemic status quo. If that standard cannot be met, the bill directs the General Services Administration to get rid of, or consolidate, that space.

“Right now, American taxpayers are forced to pay $2 billion a year for office space – almost half the size of Disney World – that D.C. bureaucrats refuse to use,” Perry said in a statement last year. “President Biden is grasping onto more than 11,000 acres of old, unused buildings and won’t force federal employees into offices already paid for by the American people.”

The bill echoes Republicans’ calls to the White House and leaders of federal agencies to bring teleworking employees back to offices now that the government has transitioned out of maximum telework. Workers and unions have strongly resisted, and agencies have been experimenting with hybrid work arrangements to strike a balance. The President’s recently unveiled 2025 budget request says as of January, more than 80% of federal work is being performed in-person. Still, agencies have discretion to set their own remote and telework policies, and some may permit more liberal use than others.

In response, the White House said in an administrative statement of policy that it “strongly opposes” Republicans’ USE IT bill, even though it itself has prodded agencies to bring workers back.

“While the administration believes that the federal real estate portfolio needs to be evaluated and optimized, the administration believes that agencies’ unique missions require individualized approaches to improving space utilization,” the statement said.

It also pointed out that some of the more historic office buildings would have to undergo major reconstruction before they could accommodate higher occupancy levels.

Instead, the White House said agencies need to have stronger data to track their specific space needs.

The White House wants to devote $425 million next year to create a real estate optimization program within GSA to orient federal buildings around current space needs and expedite disposal of unneeded buildings.

“Funding in this program will also fund customer agency tenant improvements, furnishings, equipment, and any necessary move expenses if the agency is unable to fund the costs,” according to the budget breakdown.

Eight federal complexes in the national capital region are slated for millions of dollars of upgrades each in 2025, much of which is for basic structural repair and safety.

The House also approved another bill this extending the authority of the Public Buildings Reform Board by one year to 2026. This body of appointed public and private sector real estate experts makes regular recommendations for property sales, consolidations or disposals on behalf of the government.

Meanwhile, several large departments have called broad swaths of their workforces back in recent months, most recently of which was the Department of Interior.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In Other News
Load More