Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) released a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report today that recommends a moratorium on new federal courthouse construction projects that, if built, would cost taxpayers billions of dollars. According to the GAO, most of the proposed projects do not meet the judiciary's own criteria for project requests and need to be reevaluated.
During today's full committee hearing chaired by Shuster, witnesses from the federal judiciary and the General Services Administration (GSA) faced bipartisan criticism regarding the judiciary's current 5-year Courthouse Project Plan for construction, as well as for long-standing problems of overbuilding courthouses, basing needs on overestimated numbers of future judges, and failing to adopt sufficient courtroom sharing practices.
"The purpose of today's hearing is to prevent the future overbuilding of federal courthouses and to save billions of taxpayer dollars," Shuster said. "Essentially the Committee asked GAO a basic question. Keeping in mind that we could administer justice in a warehouse with two milk crates and a 2x4, have the judiciary and GSA learned the lessons of past overbuilding, and can Congress rely on the judiciary's five-year plan to authorize the highest priority and necessary courthouse projects? Unfortunately, GAO's response is "No.' In homes across the Nation, families are worried about the economy, their jobs, and balancing their own budgets. They expect the same from us here in Washington. We must save taxpayer dollars and we must ensure new projects are truly needed and fully justified."
"We in Congress have perhaps no greater responsibility than to be careful with the people's money," said Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Chairman Lou Barletta (R-PA). "Ensuring the proper administration of justice for our citizens is critical to our nation. However, we now know from numerous studies and the Judiciary's own space usage report that, in fact, significant money can be saved in the courthouse construction program. With today's budget deficits, the growing national debt and the people's expectation of government being a better steward of the tax dollar, we must ensure that waste is minimized."
According to the GAO report, the judiciary's most recent five-year plan, submitted to Congress March 11, 2013, proposes $1 billion in new courthouse construction. However, GAO reports that the actual costs to the taxpayers, when considering all project phases and future rent payments, will total at least $3.2 billion. GAO recommended greater transparency in the judiciary's construction requests to better reflect the true costs of proposals.
The GAO also concluded that although the judiciary has made some necessary updates to its process and criteria for determining construction requests, 10 of the 12 projects in the current 5-year plan were not evaluated under the new process and do not qualify for a new courthouse under the new criteria.
As a result, the GAO recommended a moratorium on the construction projects in the 5-year plan pending reevaluation.
Waste in federal courthouse construction is not new. A 2010 report by the GAO found that the GSA constructed over 3.5 million square feet of extra space, costing $835 million in construction and $51 million annually in operating that surplus space. The GAO gave 3 reasons for this waste of taxpayer money: the judiciary overestimating the number of future judges by as much as 50%, the judiciary's policy of not sharing courtrooms, and the GSA simply building larger and more expensive courthouses than Congress authorized.
GAO Director for Physical Infrastructure Mark Goldstein said that when the GAO reviewed the last 33 federal courthouses constructed by the GSA, space had been built for 119 judgeships that never materialized.
In response to questions about increasing courtroom sharing among federal judges, including whether three judges could reasonably share two courtrooms, Judge Michael Ponsor, Chairman of the Judiciary's Committee on Space and Facilities, said, "I don't think there is a single federal trial judge in the country who would agree that a court with three active judges could provide the people of the United States the sort of justice that they are entitled to permanently using just two courtrooms."