GAO Review: Are Additional Federal Courthouses Justified?

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0 Wednesday, April 17, 2013 @ 10:30 |

Transcript of Hearing

Summary of Subject Matter

Additional Materials:

Opening Statements

Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA)

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Hearing on “GAO Review: Are Additional Federal Courthouses Justified?”

April 17, 2013

Opening Statement

(Remarks as Prepared)

The purpose of today’s hearing is to prevent the future overbuilding of federal courthouses and to save billions of taxpayer dollars.  Today, we are releasing GAO’s most recent report on the Federal Judiciary’s 5-Year Plan for new courthouses.

Essentially the committee asked GAO a basic question:  “Keeping in mind that we could administer justice in a warehouse with two milk crates and a 2x4, has the Judiciary and GSA learned the lessons of past overbuilding, and can Congress rely on the 5-Year Plan to authorize the highest priority and necessary courthouse projects?”

Unfortunately, GAO’s response is “NO.”  In fact, GAO’s written testimony today recommends a moratorium on new courthouses until the projects on the plan can be re-evaluated.

The 5-Year Plan lays out the Judiciary’s priorities for courthouse construction in the coming fiscal years.  The current plan includes projects representing more than $3 billion in costs to the taxpayer.

So what were the mistakes of the past and what did they cost the taxpayer?

In 2010, at the request of this Committee, GAO reviewed all 33 courthouses built between 2000 and 2010.  The GAO found that over 3.5 million extra square feet were built, costing the taxpayer an extra $835 million in construction costs and $51 million annually in operating the extra space.  And, that figure doesn’t even count the space abandoned by the courts, such as the old Dyer courthouse in Miami or the Dillon courthouse sitting vacant right now in downtown Buffalo, New York.

The GAO gave 3 reasons for this waste of taxpayer money:

  1. The Judiciary over estimated the number of future judges by as much as 50%.
  2. The Judiciary’s policy to NOT share courtrooms required new courtrooms and chambers for every projected judge; and
  3. GSA simply built larger and more expensive courthouses than Congress authorized.

Let me give you one example here in Washington, DC.  Two days ago Chairman Barletta, Ranking Member Norton, and I toured the federal courthouse on Constitution Avenue.  It consists of two buildings:  the original 1950’s courthouse and the large Annex that opened in 2005.

When GSA proposed the Annex in the 1990’s, the Judiciary projected there would be 36 district judges when it opened.  Today there are only 24.  As a result, there are about 600 people working in almost a million square foot building.  To put that in context, that’s about the size of five hundred 2,000 square foot homes.

To avoid making the same mistakes in the future, it appears we can’t rely on the projections of future judges, we need courtroom sharing, and GSA has to follow the law and build courthouses within the authorized limits.

Eight years ago, when I chaired the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, I requested the Judiciary study how often courtrooms are used and adopt courtroom sharing.  The courts’ own report showed that courtrooms across the Nation sat unused for most of the day – and they adopted a courtroom sharing policy for new courthouses.

In addition, the Judiciary revised its planning process for when to recommend new courthouses for construction.  Today, we will hear testimony on GAO’s review of this new process and the Judiciary’s 5-year courthouse plan.  This plan is critical in helping GSA and Congress determine what projects are justified and cost-effective.  The accuracy of this plan and how it is developed should ensure taxpayer money is not wasted.

However, as we will hear today, there are serious questions as to whether the projects on the most recent 5-year plan, submitted to the Committee last month, are even needed.  Despite developing a new assessment process to evaluate the need for a new courthouse, the Judiciary has not applied the process to 10 of the 12 projects on the plan.  As I said earlier, GAO recommends a moratorium on new courthouses until the projects can be evaluated using the new assessment process.

Right now we are running trillion dollar deficits, we have a $16 trillion debt, and agencies are furloughing staff and shutting down air traffic control towers.  In homes across the Nation, families are worried about the economy, their jobs, and balancing their own budgets.  They expect the same from us here in Washington.

We must save taxpayer dollars and we must ensure new projects are truly needed and fully justified.

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Mr. Mark L. Goldstein, Director, Physical Infrastructure, U.S. Government Accountability Office | Written Testimony

The Honorable Michael A. Ponsor, Judge, United States District Court; Chairman, Committee on Space and Facilities, Judicial Conference of the United States | Written Testimony

Dr. Dorothy Robyn, Commissioner, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration | Written Testimony

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