Could the federal government reduce the size of the national debt substantially by selling off some of its surplus properties?

The administration is now exploring whether that's feasible -- and legislation is being drafted on Capitol Hill to require agencies to inventory their property and get it appraised to encourage sales of surplus property.

The American Society of Appraisers recently concluded that the government could clear $100 billion or more by selling off more than 500 pieces of property now considered surplus. The government has said they are worth $1.3 billion.

But others are more skeptical. The General Accounting Office recently studied the idea of selling off excess federal land and buildings and concluded it wasn't all that easy.

GAO said: "Gathering accurate data on federal property holdings and addressing all the problems and issues inherent in a disposal program would require an extensive staff and considerable time -- up to 10 to 12 years -- for some properties to be sold, according to General Services Administration headquarters officials."

By that time, GAO said, the information could become out of date. In addition, it said, Congress would have to order changes in federal policies on property disposal, and decide how the proceeds from the sales should be used.

GAO also noted that sales of large parcels of land could have an impact on local real estate values in areas where the U.S. government is a major landholder, and that the value of the land sales should be weighed against the loss of potential revenue from the land, such as leases for oil and gas drilling.

Some skepticism for the idea has also been expressed by, among others, Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs and logistics, and the man in charge of the military's bases.

Korb wrote Budget Director David A. Stockman and White House counselor Edwin Meese III in December, urging that military commanders be allowed to keep control of the money they save by selling off bases, as an added incentive to dispose of property.

In his memo, Korb said: "I'd urge you to stay away from the 'pay off the national debt' argument as the benefit of increasing sales of surplus properties.... The proceeds from sales are likely to be so small a fraction of the debt that they invite snickering and disbelief.

"In FY 1980, for example, the government surplus real estate property sales represented something like.00004 of the national debt in that year. Even a tenfold increase in sales would not make much of a dent in the debt."

Korb preferred that the money be turned over to the commanders.