A perplexing passage in the continuing resolution that Congress passed last week to keep the government running threatened to delay the federal land sales program, although the General Services Administration claims it has a green light from the White House.
The passage said all "federal lands" put up for sale must be submitted to congressional delegations, states and the public at least 30 days in advance, and published in the Congressional Record.
GSA, which put the first 82 parcels up for sale yesterday without such advance preparations, said informal conversations with the White House Property Review Board have indicated that those provisions didn't affect the agency. GSA said it would move ahead with the sales program while its general counsel prepares a legal opinion.
"This problem is brought about when the regular appropriations process is not followed. We need clear-cut legislation, not continuing resolutions," said GSA administrator Gerald P. Carmen.
The dispute cropped up because Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) favored a plan that would have required an additional layer of congressional review on "public lands," those properties generally managed by the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service. But Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) pressed, and won, compromise language changing the term to "federal lands" so it would also apply to surplus properties that federal agencies would turn over to GSA for sale.
"The idea of this amendment was to add a few more hoops to the process," said Susan K. Rieff, an aide to Bumpers.
Later, however, McClure met with Joshua A. Muss, the new executive director of the PRB, and passed the word that the amendment, as McClure wanted it understood, applied only to Interior and Forest Service property. His staff confirmed that the intent was to focus only on "public lands."
Douglas Baldwin, chief spokesman for Interior Secretary James G. Watt, said the agency already does just about everything called for in the McClure amendment. The only change he could see would require the department to notify congressional delegations of possible land sales in their districts, which Baldwin said is now "done voluntarily."
"It doesn't matter what McClure said, the amendment and the law stand as they are, and they apply to GSA and to Interior properties," said Andrew F. Wiessner, a counsel to the House Interior subcommittee on public lands and national parks. "GSA's sales should be put on hold. I suspect that if any of these properties turn out to be controversial, the parties who oppose the sale would bring a lawsuit and claim that the administration has violated the law."
Muss said he had passed McClure's comments on to the GSA, but said he wouldn't consider that "legal counsel."
"I may be their rabbi, but I'm not their lawyer," he said. "They must seek their own legal advice."