There is hope that the cascade of scandals that finally poured out of the federal General Services Administration during the last year or two, will result in better public buildings.
The conditions that invite corruption and waste in GSA's procurement of paper clips, computers and office space for the federal bureaucracy persist. Purchasing procedures, according to management experts in the General Accounting Office, are still a thicket of often contradictory guidelines and regulations, some decreed by Congress, most homespun, but largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
Only in GSA's Public Building Service has the cleaning of the Augean stables been started -- not by GSA, but by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
After nine months of intensive study by the committee staff, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D -- N.Y.) recently introduced a bill that calls for a total revision of the way GSA goes about providing work space for federal workers.
GSA's public and leased buildings have a profound effect on the appearance and economy of American cities. Roughly 1 million federal employes work in them. This year's building and leasing budget is $1.4 billion.
At the moment, this money is frozen because the Senate committee discovered not only misconduct within GSA but also utter confusion as to how and where GSA's building and leasing budget is spent. The Committee, said Moynihan, is asked to approve renovation and leasing proposals piecemeal throughout the year without any plan, overview or indication of priorities.
Nor is there any policy about the location of public buildings -- "in the heart of downtown or on an island in the middle of a river," as a former GSA official put it to Moynihan.
Despite the confusion, GSA claims to know there is an urgent backlog of $664 million worth of federal office space to be built.
For the last dozen or so years, GSA has preferred leasing, rather than building needed space. In fact, half the federal bureaucracy labors in rented quarters. It seems cheaper.
The Office of Management and Budget approves of this penny-wise pound-foolishness, although it surely must know that years and years after construction costs have been paid for, the government still has nothing to show but a stack of rent receipt stubs.
Besides, much of the leased space is inefficient and shoddily built, as workers in the federal sweatshops at Parklawn, Buzzard Point, Rosslyn or Crystal City will confirm.
"Standards for federal buildings result in sturdily built if sometimes grandiose, edifices, while no qualitative standards whatever seem to guide decisions over leasing public space in private buildings. The result is that government offices are sometimes placed in jerry-built, out-of-the-way buildings that no self-respecting private firm will occupy," Moynihan said.
The Moynihan bill, which is co-sponsored by all 14 members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, would impose strict limits on leasing. But it would provide the needed space by letting GSA borrow construction funds from the Treasury, to be repaid with interest, much like a private home mortgage.
To make sure the new construction is better than the glassboxes, egg crates and FBI buildings we have been getting lately, the bill includes the elegant instructions Moynihan drafted 18 years ago when he was an assistant secretary of Labor, early in the Kennedy administration.
The president issued them and GSA bureaucrats ignored them.
This time, however, Moynihan's prose, worthy of the noble Vitruvius who told the Romans how to build noble buildings in the days of Emperor Augustus, may assume the force of law.
Public buildings, says the bill, shall be designed and maintained "in such manner that they bear visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American government, embody the finest contemporary American architectual thought and, where appropriate, reflect regional architectural traditions."
The Senate committee staff, directed by John W. Yago Jr. and Bailey Guard, with fresh help from Bob Peck (who has for years tried to improve federal design under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts) knows how to get that finest contemporary architectural thought embodied.
The Moynihan bill, in fact, is an architecture buff and city lover's dream. Among many other thoughtful provisions, it reestablishes the position of Supervising Architect, abolished in 1939. Some of America's best 19th-century architects, such as Robert Mills (Treasury Building) and A. B. Mullet (Executive Office Building), proudly held that position.
It requires GSA to use design competitions to select private architects -- a good old American tradition which got us the Capitol, White House, Smithsonian castle and most other important buildings of our early history. Competitions were abolished because the big, established architectural firms frown on giving young talent an equal chance.
The Moynihan bill would give rehabilitation of worthy old buildings prioritys over new construction. It would allow the "multiple use" of public buildings, i.e., let them be used for shops, restaurants, art displays and other appropriate amenities.
Congress passed a law to this effect several years ago. But the bureaucrats in GSA and OMB arbitrarily limited non-government use to 10 percent of the total space. Moynihan says it should be up to 50 percent. That would make it possible for the Old Post Office, for instance, to put lively tourist attractions into its fabulous inner court.
Another section of the bill establishes a progam for circulating art and educational exhibits in federal buildings. It also puts the "art-in-architecture" program on a statutory basis and lets local citizens participate in decisions about art in or around public buildings. The budget for art is set at one-half of 1 percent of annual GSA construction and maintenance expenditures.
The bill once again affirms the law that all public buildings, old or new, must be conveniently accessible for persons in wheelchairs or otherwise handicapped. My guess is that we shall have to put a few architects and bureaucrats in jail at hard labor before this simple law is finally fully obeyed.
The most important provision in the Moynihan bill concerns the location of government buildings. For a number of reasons, all of them stupid, the federal government has generously contributed to urban sprawl and the misery of the central cities by dispersing its offices and installations willy-nilly all over the landscape.
Moynihan would place them close to their constituents, the other agencies they deal with and in such a way that they are in scale with their surroundings.
He would establish geographic priorities in locating federal buildings. Headquarters of federal agencies are to be in downtown Washington, which happens to be the national capital, rather than Gaithersburg or Hicksville. Other agency offices are to be distributed across the country in proportion to population.
GSA is told that any city or town is entitled to one federal building or courthouse of monumental design, with others, if needed, designed to the same standards as first-class commercial buildings.
All new public buildings, furthermore, are to be located so as to contribute to community life, provide opportunities for good urban design, be accessible to public transportation, nearby shopping and open space. Their location, in short, should cause a minimum of traffic congestion and energy consumption and help make federal employment attractive to qualified men and women.
The bill proves that the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works understands the tremendous importance public works have on a livable environment.