The years-long effort to build a new headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation is facing uncertainty as supporters in Congress scramble to secure more than a billion dollars of funding by next month to keep the massive project on track.
The years-long effort to build a new headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation faces fresh uncertainty as supporters in Congress scramble to secure more than a billion dollars of funding by next month to keep the massive project on track.
A vague, three-sentence statement released this month by the agency overseeing the $2 billion development — as well as silence from President Donald Trump, a former real estate developer — has shifted the discussion from whether the headquarters will be built in Maryland or Virginia to whether its progress will be delayed indefinitely.
At stake is a project that could have enormous economic impact on Prince George's County and the state, assuming it is built in Maryland. With 11,000 employees, the FBI would become one of the state's largest employers.
"I am concerned," said Rep. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat who used a Wednesday meeting at the White House to deliver a letter to Trump seeking his "direct involvement" in the project.
"I'm still optimistic Maryland is the best site," Brown said, "but there's a large delta in terms of what's been appropriated [in funding] and what's outstanding."
In a letter to Maryland's mostly Democratic congressional delegation reviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan described the delay as "disappointing and alarming." He encouraged federal lawmakers to "vigorously advocate for the funding."
Of immediate concern is whether lawmakers can secure $1.4 billion for the building in whatever legislation Congress approves to keep the government running past April 28, when current spending authority expires. Consumed by Trump's Cabinet, a Supreme Court nominee and the effort to repeal Obamacare, Congress has made little progress on that front.
The General Services Administration was expected this month to choose one of three sites under consideration — two in Prince George's County and one in Fairfax County, Va. Instead, the agency issued a terse statement announcing it would not proceed without more funding.
It is the third time site selection has been delayed.
Given the lack of time in the legislative calendar, many observers believe a large portion of the federal government will by funded by a stop-gap spending measure through September. Such arrangements generally freeze funding at current levels, making a billion-dollar-plus addition a tall order.
"It's difficult to come up with that much capital expenditure in one appropriations process," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, Southern Maryland lawmaker and longtime champion of bringing the FBI to the state. "It's going to be difficult. But we're working very hard at it."
Even if funding comes through, there are deeper political questions at play about the Trump administration's commitment to the development. The White House didn't mention the FBI building in its recent proposed budget. Trump is seeking billions of dollars to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, which could drain resources from other large projects.
And his campaign is under investigation by the same agency that would benefit from the new headquarters.
The White House also has not nominated anyone to lead the General Services Administration, which oversees federal property. A GSA nominee would face difficult questions from Congress about another real estate project — the Old Post Office building in Washington — which Trump renovated into a luxury hotel last year before the election.
Democrats are eager to point out that Trump International Hotel is leasing the building from the GSA despite a clause in the contact that says no "elected official ... shall be admitted to any share or part of this lease." The GSA said Thursday that the clause is not violated because Trump had resigned from his company.
Multiple White House spokespeople did not respond to emailed questions about the administration's thoughts on the FBI project, whether it supports funding or whether it believes the GSA has handled the process correctly. Presidents typically would not engage in a federal real estate process that is ostensibly apolitical, but nothing would prohibit the White House from offering its support or disapproval.
A leading justification offered by supporters of a new building is that the FBI's current headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, cannot accommodate all the agency's employees. The headquarters workforce is scattered among about two dozen annex buildings in the Washington region.
Opened in 1975, the Hoover building needs an estimated $80.5 million in repairs and upgrades. Parts of the building have been covered in netting to prevent falling chunks of concrete from hitting the sidewalk.
Through leadership changes and fights over spending, the GSA has been inching forward on the development, narrowing down the number of sites and collecting public input. In 2014, the agency said the project would be built at one of three locations: Greenbelt or Landover in Maryland, or Springfield, Va.
Supporters say the FBI building will have to be built eventually because the status quo is unsustainable. In the meantime, every year of delay adds to construction costs and forces the FBI to spend millions on rent.
Those points traditionally have found sympathetic ears on both sides of the aisle. Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, authorized $834 million for the project in December, saying it would "improve the FBI's security posture and its operations, and save money."
Neither Shuster, nor Republican Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees public buildings, responded to questions about their current assessment of the development.
But there has been criticism on Capitol Hill for years over how the GSA structured the deal, specifically the idea of giving the winning developer rights to the Hoover building to offset the total cost. Hoover sits in an increasingly tony part of Washington — less than a block from Trump's hotel — and some believe it could fetch a higher price for taxpayers if were sold independently of the FBI project.
The frustration was apparent in report language approved by the House Appropriations Committee last year explaining its funding choices.
"GSA's insistence on using its exchange authorities to fund the design and construction of a new headquarters through the sale of the J. Edgar Hoover Building is another example of weak property disposal," the committee wrote. "GSA's request for $1.4 billion for the FBI in fiscal year 2017 is evidence of its inexperience and inability to execute an exchange of this scale."
It's not clear whether there is an appetite for revising that structure, or whether that could be accomplished without starting from scratch.
A spokeswoman for Hogan described the delays as "frustrating" but said "the governor will continue to lead the fight to secure this important opportunity."
Asked for an example of how he was doing that, spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor had spoken to Vice President Mike Pence about it, and that he had sent the recent letter to members of the delegation.
That letter pointed to the GSA's delay, and said that "the State of Maryland has more than delivered on its promise to provide the best viable option for a new FBI headquarters. I am calling on you, as part of the federal delegation elected by Marylanders, to vigorously advocate for the funding."
But Rep. Andy Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, did not sound overly optimistic. The Baltimore County lawmaker has supported the project.
"Given the fiscal difficulties facing Congress in light of the president's desire to increase defense spending, although I wholeheartedly support the project, it is unrealistic to expect it to proceed on the original timetable," Harris said in a statement.
Harris said the recent decision by Democratic majorities in the General Assembly to advance legislation to limit cooperation with federal authorities on immigration "certainly does nothing to help my efforts."
Hogan has vowed to veto that measure.
The near-term economic impact of a new headquarters could be limited by the fact that many FBI employees live in Maryland, and the agency already spends $276 million on goods and services in the state annually, according to a 2012 study by what is now known as the Maryland Department of Commerce.
Because few FBI employees would move to Maryland from Virginia or D.C., the study found that sales and personal income tax revenue would increase by only about $1.8 million.
But supporters say that would change with time, as new employees buy homes close to work, and they point to the private contracting community that has sprung up around the National Security Agency at Fort Meade and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
"Just like you have, at Fort Meade, all the IT and defense contracting, we think the same effect could apply here," said M.H. Jim Estepp, president and CEO of the Greater Prince George's Business Roundtable. "Anytime you bring thousands of people in, you bring in the potential of having other businesses supported by the people who are going to be on that campus."
Others say reading too much into GSA's delay is a mistake, in part because the agency had always said progress was contingent on funding. David S. Iannucci, a senior economic development adviser in Prince George's County, said he is confident the building ultimately will move forward.
"Delay literally hurts national security," Iannucci said. "A 'no-build option' is not an option."