The federal government stores enough furniture to fill the Pentagon and take care of government needs for 10 years while it continues to buy $200 million in new furniture each year, a Senate hearing was told yesterday.
The dust-covered, forgotten furniture -- some in unopened cartons, some used, and some in need of slight repair -- is stored at 76 warehouse locations in the Washington area alone, according to data developed by government auditors.
It belongs to dozens of government agencies that pay millions of dollars each year to the General Services Administration to store it. About 3.7 million square feet of storage space are involved.
"We have this furniture all over the country," Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal spending practices, said as he examined an upholstered hickory chair still in its factory carton.
"I don't think the agencies feel the storage space cost anything or that the furniture costs anything."
Rowland G. Freeman III, adminstrator of the General Services Administration, which buys and stores the furniture on behalf of other federal agencies, has attempted to halt all furniture purchases on the grounds the government has enough furniture.
But U.S. District Court Judge Harold H. Green last month questioned Freeman's word and ordered him to continue buying furniture. He ruled in Washington that Freeman really was trying to discriminate illegally against Art Metal-USA Inc., which supplies GSA with 75 percent of its office furniture.
Freeman said yesterday that GSA is developing a system for controlling its furniture purchases so only needed furniture is bought.
Yesterday, Chiles led shivering reporters and camera crew through dozens of rooms crammed with furniture at one nine-story building in the Navy Yard Annex at 3rd and M streets SE.
Desks, chairs, bookcases, filing cabinets and sofas were piled on top of each other at the request of the 15 agencies that use space in the warehouse. Microscopes and other scientific equipment placed there in 1977 by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare cluttered the shelves.
Chiles and two subcommittee members, Sens. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and David H. Pryor (D-Ark.), pulled a handsome walnut desk from a pile of furniture and presided over the hearing from behind it. Reporters, a court stenographer, and GSA officials pulled up swivel chairs and sofas and sat in front of the desk.
Paul Granetto, a General Accounting Office auditor, said the government has enough furniture stored at the 76 locations to take care of its office needs for a decade, but continues to buy more.
Granetto, assigned to the subcommittee staff by the GAO, said GSA has purchased $1.8 billion in office furniture since 1970, a period in which the federal work force of 3 million has grown by only 100,000 employes.
Many government agencies, he said, have no inventory of the furniture, either in use or in storage.
The inquiry into excess government furniture began after newspaper reports disclosed that the Agriculture Department and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare were dumping hundreds of dollars of usable furniture every day in Washington area landfills.
HEW auditors subsequently issued a 65-page report on one dumping incident that declared that 34 pieces of HEW furniture discarded Oct. 17 in Montgomery met the government's technical requirements for scrap.
One landfill employe, "unaware of government regulations . . . mistakenly evaluated a chair as being in 'good' condition, using his own personal criteria," the report said. It also noted that any article of furniture costing less than $300 when new is considered by the government "nonaccountable."
Government auditors, under the direction of inspectors general in each agency, have been trying since to determine how much furniture they have on hand. That inquiry, not yet complete, turned up the 76 Washington storage sites.
Chiles said GSA, in 1973, began encouraging agencies to buy new, color-coded furniture as part of its "office excellence" program. The program, the idea of then GSA Administrator Arthur F. Sampson, was supposed to make government offices as attractive as commercial offices.
But Chiles said hundreds of millions of dollars worth of usable, attractive furniture -- including the wood desks, brightly colored chairs, and sofas used for yesterday's hearing -- were placed in storage as a result of the GSA program.
"GSA said it [the program] was necessary for morale," Chiles said. He said no one knows what became of much of the more than $1 billion spent on office furniture since 1973.
"Some $1.2 billion later, we have nothing to show for it," he said. "We have 76 warehouses in Washington full of furniture."
He said much of the furniture is stored in unlocked and unguarded rooms separated from those used by GSA for receiving new furniture and shipping it directly to agencies.
"They [GSA] seem to think they are Sears, Roebuck or Montgomery Ward," Chiles said. "The agencies think they are buying the furniture with play money."
"We are seeing a monument to waste and inefficiency," Pryor said.
Chiles said the hearings will continue in February, when the auditors' findings are complete.