WASHINGTON — The federal government is paying $3,300 a day in rent to fill the Pentagon with hot air.
Two metal sheds next to the Defense Department's power plant contain portable furnaces and air conditioning units that have temporarily--for the last three years--replaced heating and air conditioning units that Defense officials say are so decrepit they might fail or explode at any minute.
How the Defense Department became reduced to using rented heaters to warm 30,000 employees and $2,700-a-day chillers to cool billions of dollars in computers is Exhibit A in what some members of Congress see as a spectacle of neglect and mismanagement by the General Services Administration.
The Pentagon is owned and managed by the GSA, which is the 12th-largest agency in the federal government. Although the Pentagon is only one of 7,043 buildings for which the GSA is responsible, it is the world's largest office building, and its story provides a case study of the problems of an almost invisible government agency in the Bush Administration.
The GSA is the government's landlord, telephone company, car buyer, purchasing agent and supply warehouse supervisor. It spends $8 billion every year, or $32.57 for every man, woman and child in the United States. With its 18,659 employees, it is larger than the Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education departments.
GSA has "major, continuing management problems," according to the General Accounting Office. More than two years after Terence C. Golden resigned as administrator, GSA is on its third acting administrator, Richard G. Austin, whose controversial nomination has been pending in the Senate since October.
"The churning at the top of GSA has been unbelievable," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). "It has been a place to put people the White House can't figure out what to do with."
The agency's record of 17 administrators since 1972--only six of them ever won Senate confirmation--reflects "inadequate White House attention to GSA's importance and needs," said Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), head of the House Government Operations subcommittee on government activities and transportation.
"I am not in a position to make a charge that GSA doesn't handle its affairs right for everybody," said Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.) But he added: "The Pentagon building is a wreck; the place is about to fall in. GSA's actions are simply unacceptable."
Recently the Administration's plan for major repairs to the building with Defense Department funds ran into a serious roadblock on Capitol Hill. Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations military construction subcommittee, declared that the $1.1-billion price tag for Pentagon repairs and office upgrading was too high.
"I'm not unmindful of the deteriorating condition of the Pentagon," Sasser said at a hearing, "but I'm not going to support $1 billion on building new offices." An aide to Sasser said he wanted to force the military to "explore alternatives" to the Administration proposal, including the possibility of leasing space elsewhere in the Washington area for some Pentagon functions.
GSA's management weaknesses stretch far beyond the problems with the Pentagon, according to the General Accounting Office, GSA internal management reviews and congressional oversight officials:
* The GSA has recently become slower in finding and leasing space for new or expanding federal agencies. Leases now take an average of 307 days to sign, up from the tortoise-like pace of 239 days more than a decade ago.
An internal management review concluded that "overworked, inexperienced realty specialists have caused customer dissatisfaction, employee turnover and problems in timeliness."
* The agency lacks up-to-date computerized information on how much property it has, how much of it is used, how much it costs to maintain, and which buildings are most efficient. The agency recently spent $198 million to develop such a system, called STRIDE, then abandoned the project before it ate up another $40 million in salvage costs. Although some of the system can be salvaged, the GAO said, the agency still lacks information necessary "for effectively planning, budgeting and overseeing program performance."
GSA has been led since September of 1988 by Austin, who spent 13 months running the agency before the White House finally decided to nominate him after flirting with competing candidates.
Austin said that the agency's major problems predate him and he has moved aggressively to resolve them.
"I take issue with the notion that this agency is adrift," he said. "Now is not an opportune time to go out and ballyhoo new programs. I want to offer better service, better response . . . and build up (the government's) infrastructure."
But agency critics contend that Austin has operated as if GSA were on automatic pilot, by going, for example, for several months without a formal staff meeting. Austin says he had informal meetings as needed.
Rep. Douglas H. Bosco (D-Occidental) believes Austin has steered the agency back on the right track. "I don't think you would consider Dick on the cutting edge of modern-day corporate management," he said, "but he is honest, sets goals, and doggedly works toward them in a methodical manner."
Austin said he has access to the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, but in describing his dealings with OMB, he acknowledged being relegated to negotiating with the third and fourth echelons in the budget agency.
He denied a charge by critics that he has come under pressure to find jobs at GSA for campaign workers.
He has named a total of 59 political appointees to some of the agency's top jobs. Although this is fewer than the proportion in some Cabinet-rank departments, it has increased from 28 only five years ago as the size of the agency has shrunk by more than a third.