Still annoyed by the Trump administration’s relocation of two Agriculture Department bureaus, a senator has introduced legislation to raise the bar for agency moves. It would require agencies to do some homework before they move. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin  talked about the bill with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin You had introduced this bill in the last Congress, and I noticed it gained one page. But thank you for only having a nine page bill. Fairly simple what you’re calling for.

Chris Van Hollen Right. And I’ve teamed up with Representative Wexton (D-Va.) from Virginia, once again, on this common sense legislation, which simply requires that federal agencies, before they undertake large moves. For example, one that took place during the Trump administration from the Washington, D.C. area to Kansas City, that before they undertake such a move, they do a cost benefit analysis to determine whether it’s in the best interests of the agency’s mission and in the best interests of the taxpayer. So that’s the idea. We would have hoped that agencies would do this as a matter of course, they don’t. And so this would require them to do so before undertaking these kind of moves.

Tom Temin And what detail in the bill is to involve the inspector general of the agency. In the case of agriculture, it would have been the agriculture IG. And what do they bring to it?

Chris Van Hollen Well, you want an independent look, because if an agency’s undertaking a move or planning a move, the assumption is that the political folks in the agency have made that determination. So we’re looking for somebody who has an independent take, a fresh look. Again, in order to protect the mission of the agency and the taxpayer. Back in 2019, what happened was the secretary of agriculture decided to move two agencies within that department, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to move them to the Kansas City region from the Washington, D.C. area. It involved huge disruptions. They lost a lot of their expertise and knowledge, and a lot of employees didn’t go. And as the [Government Accountability Office (GAO)] pointed out, they also lost some of the diversity of their workforce in that [Business Unit (BU)]. So the purpose of this legislation, that Representative Wexton and I reintroduced, is simply to require an independent cost benefit analysis before agencies undertake these significant moves.

Tom Temin And I think there was a third one, not from agriculture, that moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, too, at that time.

Chris Van Hollen That’s right. The Bureau of Land Management moved their headquarters to Colorado, and the GAO, Government Accountability Office, looked at that as well, and concluded that they did not conduct a full cost benefit analysis before making that move. So, yes, this legislation would have applied to that move. And any future move made by agencies. Again, I would think that every taxpayer would want an independent cost benefit analysis done to make sure that these moves are in the interests of the country and in the interests of the taxpayer.

Tom Temin Now, in recent memory, some agencies have moved nearby. Like, I remember [Environemental Protection Agency (EPA)] moved out of some of the worst buildings known to mankind in this hemisphere since torn down. That was a number of years ago. And now the FBI looks like it’s finally going to get up and move to either Virginia or you’re hoping to Prince George’s County, Maryland. Would those be covered by this legislation, that type of move?

Chris Van Hollen Well, in these cases, there’s a big analysis undertaken, in terms of the mission of the FBI, for example, and cost to taxpayers. In Maryland, we are asking the [General Services Administration (GSA)] to make sure that they value a number of criteria equally and that they make sure that cost to the taxpayer is a significant part of that. Because we demonstrated that moving the FBI to Virginia would cost a minimum of $1 billion more to the federal taxpayer than moving to either of the Maryland sites. But, clearly a move of an agency within a particular region, in this case within the Washington metropolitan region, does not cause the kind of disruption to workforce that move from the D.C. region to Kansas City entails.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen. And the bill regarding the relocation requirements for federal agencies did not get through the busy schedule of the 117th, now we’re in the divided 118th. Do you have any Republican co-sponsors that you’re aware of either in the House or anybody joining you in the Senate?

Chris Van Hollen We do not yet have Republican co-sponsors. We’re going to work to accomplish that. I would hope that anybody, regardless of party, would want to look before they leave, especially when you’re dealing with taxpayer dollars that they want to make sure. Agencies are making an assessment about whether a planned move will be consistent with their mission, not cause disruptions to the mission and be in the interest of taxpayers. So you would hope that would be a nonpartisan objective and we’re going to be working toward that.

Tom Temin I was going to say, if the Trump administration moves war for political purposes, I’m not sure what they would have been given the small amount of people being moved. But nevertheless, then I would think both parties would want to keep the other one from doing that, depending on who’s in the White House.

Chris Van Hollen Well, that’s right. I think members of Congress, regardless of party, should want to ensure that when federal agencies are making major moves, that they’re doing so in a way that’s in the best interests of the mission of the agency, as well as the taxpayer. And that should be true regardless of whether a Democratic president is in the White House or a Republican president is in the White House.

Tom Temin And just switching gears here for a minute while we have you, I wanted to ask you about the federal return to the office, which seems to be an agency by agency decision at this point. There’s pressure from the District of Columbia. They want some certainty of what type of office occupancy is going to look like. So maybe some federal space can be repurposed or given back on leased. What’s your sense of where this is all going ahead? Because it seems to be status at this point.

Chris Van Hollen Well, I do think agencies need to take a very close look at this question, because President Biden will soon declare an end to the pandemic emergency. So people should be making sure that they’re accomplishing the goals of their agencies. That means that if an agency says that it needs its people back in the office, that should be the case. On the other hand, we learned that there can be some flexibility in the workforce, that telework can have advantages, both in terms of the agency as well as the employee. So this is a moment to sort of look and determine based on the agency’s needs and mission, to what extent can they have some greater flexibility than they did pre-pandemic. But the key is to make sure that the policies accomplish the mission of an agency, that people need to be at work in person to accomplish that goal. Then we need to make sure people are back in person to the extent they can achieve the mission with some job flexibility than people should have that accommodation, so long as that’s consistent with the mission. So this is a time when I think different agencies are making those determinations.

Tom Temin Yeah, because I said District of Columbia. But even if you look at your own state of Maryland, there’s a kind of a belt of federal large degree of employment stretching from Bethesda to Baltimore, really. And a lot of that is in federally owned facilities, but a lot of that is leased space, too.

Chris Van Hollen Well, that’s right. And again, the primary objective here should be to meet the missions of the federal agencies. And so this will require, I think, a really good close look, because we can’t just continue on with business as usual, as it was, I shouldn’t say as usual, as it was during the pandemic. On the other hand, I think the pandemic taught us some lessons about our ability to have some more workplace flexibility. So figuring out exactly what the sweet spot is, is something every agency needs to do.

Tom Temin So you would say then that should be up to agency by agency. And we don’t need a grand pronouncement, say, from the Office of Personnel Management.

Chris Van Hollen Well, I think the Office of Personnel Management needs to be clear that agencies need to adopt policies that maximize the success of their mission. And look, we’re going to be keeping a very close look on this, meaning the members of Congress, by chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees a lot of federal agencies. Others oversee other agencies. So I do think we need a coherent policy, but not every agency of government depends on the same workforce requirements, in terms of being there in person full time. But again, I think that this is something that we should at least have an articulated policy that governs the actions of every agency. That doesn’t mean every agency has the exact same policy, but we do need some overall guidance.

Tom Temin All right. And then also, there’s a lot of proposals going around now for the federal pay raise. There’s the FAIR Act, which I think does have bipartisan support in both houses. Not sure how extensive that is for the 8.7. And then there’s the Biden administration 5.2 proposal. What’s your expectation of where this is going to come out, do you think, for federal employees?

Chris Van Hollen Well, I’m a supporter of the FAIR Act. I think that it’s really important that federal employees are paid at their full value, and that would mean the greater amount. At the same time, I think that the increase that President Biden and the Biden administration have put forward, 5.2%, is a really important step in the right direction. So we’ll be working to try to bump that up. But the way it works is that unless Congress substitutes its judgment on the pay increase, the president’s proposal will prevail. And I think that in this case, Republicans in the Congress are going to be very reluctant and resistant to increasing it above 5.2%. We’re going to work to encourage them to do that. But at least this is a very respectable place to be. This meaning what President Biden has proposed.

Tom Temin And 5.2% across the board is better than 4.7 for base and four point, whatever it was, half for base salary, half for a locality pay. The net is greater with 5.2 across the board than 8.7, divide it in half.

Chris Van Hollen Right. So again, what the president has put forward, I think is a very respectable proposal. And I will oppose any effort by Republicans in Congress to roll that back as we move through the process.