Agency Instability: GSA nominee remains in limbo

Martha Johnson seen by many as the most qualified candidate to be GSA administrator in a decade. But her nomination remains on hold in the Senate because Sen. C...

By unanimous approval of Johnson by the committee in May.

Yet, Johnson remains on hold because Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) is upset over something that has nothing to do with Johnson or her qualifications.

Bond took issue with GSA’s Public Building Service’s plan to no longer pursue a lease-construct approach to the new $175 million federal building in downtown Kansas City. Instead, PBS commissioner Robert Peck says GSA decided the agency couldn’t justify the cost of the lease build approach and wants to construct their own building in downtown Kansas City.

Peck, in an October letter to Bond and Sen. Clair McCaskill (D-Mo.) after their meeting detailed the agency’s plans and said GSA still is waiting congressional approval and funding.

Sahar Wali, GSA’s director of communications, says Bond is aware of all steps GSA has taken to move the process forward.

Bond, however, is unhappy with those steps and thus put a hold on Johnson’s confirmation.

Experts inside and out of government say Bond’s tactic is an abuse of power.

“I do not believe this is a reasonable use of Senate hold authority,” says Paul Light, a professor at New York University and expert on government. “It’s a frivolous and irresponsible hold. I have great admiration for Sen. Bond. He’s a good senator who cares about public service and cares about government. But this hold is irresponsible and entirely motivated by his own self interest.”

Light says Bond would be better served if he was dealing with a permanent administrator than trying to get concessions from GSA or the administration.

Bond says in an e-mailed statement that his hold has always been about keeping 1,000 jobs in Kansas City, not blocking one at GSA.

“GSA agrees that Kansas City needs a new federal building so it shouldn’t be asking too much for lawmakers and the community to be told their plan, yet we’ve been waiting for over four years for this information,” Bond says.

A Bond staff member says GSA needs to be more responsive to Kansas City after “jerking them around for five years.”

The staff member adds that the Senate had almost two months to get Johnson confirmed before Bond applied his hold.

A McCaskill spokeswoman says the senator was unavailable to comment on the situation.

Repeated requests to the White House for comment on the Johnson confirmation issue also were not returned.

This stalemate leaves both GSA and Johnson in limbo. The White House named Stephen Leeds last month to be its fourth acting administrator in a row since Lurita Doan resigned in 2008. And Johnson is on a holding pattern waiting for someone to break the stalemate.

Wali says the White House has given every indication that it still supports Johnson to be GSA administrator.

“If anything, we are confident that we are working very closely with Senator Bond to resolve his issues and we have a close relationship with the White House as well” Wali says. “We are looking forward to the day Martha gets confirmed.”

But some GSA observers-both in and out of government-say the surprising resignation of Danielle Germain earlier this month is bad news for Johnson’s chances.

Germain was GSA’s chief of staff since June and was hand-picked by Johnson to help run the agency.

Her departure, along with the retirement of deputy administrator Barney Brasseux, leaves GSA with vacancies of permanent leaders among its top three executives. Leeds replaced Paul Prouty, who returned to be a Public Buildings Service regional administrator in Denver.

Wali says GSA still is getting its job done very well and meeting the administration’s priorities. But others inside and out of GSA says the lack of a permanent leader for almost two years is () taking its toll on the agency.

Light says Johnson’s nomination will be a tough sell. He says the only way it can be forced through the process is for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to call a cloture vote.

“I don’t think Reid wants to spend political capital fighting for a nomination,” Light says. “I can’t remember one in last 20 years that went to a cloture vote. Reid has so many things to worry about that he’s loathed to take nomination to floor and fight for it.”

Regan Lachapelle, Reid’s deputy communications director, says the majority leader will “continue to work to get an agreement with Republicans to consider this and other nominations. We hope to do so soon.”

Light says the White House could make their case to Reid and Bond, but that also is unlikely as priorities such as health care reform, the economy and two wars are taking up more of their focus.

“Sen. Bond’s type of hold is becoming more frequent, but I wouldn’t say it’s happening often,” Light says. “Senators do use nominations to extract concessions from the administration and sometimes colleagues. I don’t see how it will be possible to break the hold unless Sen. Bond realizes this is no way to run government, and he realizes the hold is undermining government performance. He should realize this.”

Lieberman says Johnson is one of several nominations that are stuck in the process.

“I think the White House is really pushing, but there are so many to push,” he says. “GSA has to be one of the top ones, a priority to get filled. It’s not healthy to have GSA without an administrator.”

Lieberman says he may have to force the issue to get the hold removed and Johnson confirmed. He says he had to do that for Tara O’Toole, the head of the Science and Technology directorate at the Homeland Security Department.

Collins says the confirmation is up to Reid and the Democratic leadership to make happen.

Meanwhile, the frustration of the lack of a permanent leader at GSA is rising among federal contractors.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president for TechAmerica, an industry association, says vendors have watched the process for the last six months, but the lack of a permanent political leader is starting to affect GSA.

“TechAmerica respects the Senate tradition of placing holds on nominees, but we are concerned now after six months that it is impacting GSA’s ability to move forward and implement the administration’s initiatives,” she says. “It may not be well known outside of the Beltway, but GSA is a key government agency. It’s a major buying agency of technology, and now it’s playing a key role in other priorities such as green buildings and the stimulus package. Now is the time for us to move forward and get this done and have a GSA administrator in place for the new year.”

TechAmerica has been in touch with Capitol Hill staff and White House officials about Johnson’s nomination. But Grkavac says it may be time to do more.

“We really thought this would be done in December and are dismayed this was not done by the end of 2009,” she says. “Now we have to look at this and explore how to take more concrete steps to get the GSA administrator in place.”

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