The latest issue of the Washington Monthly magazine covers how “Bidenomics really is a BFD.” Rana Foroohar, in The Great Reordering, explains how Biden has engineered a “true economic paradigm shift” that is shaping markets instead of deferring to them. Will Norris argues Biden is Winning the Anti-monopoly Game with aggressive antitrust enforcement policies. And Paul Glastris compares Biden to his predecessor Harry Truman, as both fused economic philosophy with diplomacy to “build a global order … while building a broad middle class.”
But how exactly is a grand economic vision translated into action that benefits regular people? Who in government takes the words in legislation, crafted by Congress then signed by the president, and brings them to life?
One of those people is Robin Carnahan, who leads the General Services Administration.
The agency was established by none other than Harry Truman (following recommendations for government reorganization and improved bureaucratic efficiency offered by another former president, Herbert Hoover.)
The GSA manages government property, procurement, transportation, and communications. Owning or leasing over 363 million square feet of space, the decisions made by the GSA can have huge impacts.
Now the agency is integral to the execution of two major programs enacted by Biden: The Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the biparitsan infrastructure law).
President Joe Biden and other White House officials like to say they are “delivering for the American people.” How is the GSA doing that? I talked to Administrator Carnahan to find out.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
BILL SCHER: What is the GSA doing to implement the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act?
ROBIN CARNAHAN: These are really big generational investments that we’re making both in our country’s infrastructure that has been long overdue, as well as sustainability—the biggest investment we’ve ever made in our country’s history in sustainability.
And the President has laid out some really big ambitious goals about investing in America and making sure those things are creating good American jobs, good union jobs, creating pathways to the middle class.
At GSA, we are basically the landlord. We own more property and manage more property, pretty much than anybody in the country. And we’re also one of the biggest buyers of goods and services.
So what we’re trying to do is use that buying power to really spur demand for some new kinds of products.
For example, we have from the Inflation Reduction Act about $3.4 billion in total that comes in three buckets. About $2 billion is low embodied carbon building materials—and those are things like asphalt, concrete, glass and steel. And if we can reduce the carbon in the line of production then that has a big impact on climate change.
We have just under a billion for emerging and sustainable technologies, which is really interesting, because it’s a way to make our buildings more efficient. [We] put new products into federal buildings and test them out and when they work, [we] scale it across the portfolio.
And then about $250 million to convert buildings to what’s called “high performance green buildings,” moving to carbon-free electricity.
I’m always letting folks know that the GSA—we actually just do things and deliver for partners. We’re not a grant-making organization. We’re the ones that deliver. So we’ve already deployed money from both IRA and the bipartisan infrastructure law in less than a year, and it’s getting these products on the street.
BS: Are the choices you made mandated by the provisions of those two laws? Or are these choices that you and the agency made to go above and beyond the law?
RC: A little bit of both. But the buckets of money, the $2 billion for low embodied carbon building materials was the by law in IRA, and just under a billion for emerging and sustainable technologies, likewise. And then the rest for high performance green buildings. So within those buckets, we’re able to have some leeway about how we spend that to have the biggest impact.
We also got about that same amount of money, $3.4 billion, to upgrade 26 land ports of entries. That’s border crossings on both the northern and southern borders. And those [upgrades] are long overdue so supply chains work better, commerce can travel easier, reduce congestion, [and] really address issues around drug smuggling and help our partners over at Homeland Security be able to do their jobs.
BS: You’ve mentioned choices that you’re making that are intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and also ways to save money. Are there tensions between those two goals?
RC: The federal government tends to hold their buildings for a long time. In your own home, you might have to make that financial calculation about the payback time for putting solar on your roof or putting new windows in your building to see how much efficiency you get. As an entity that holds buildings for a long time, these investments just make sense. They are going to save money over time. They’re going to reduce costs, and they’re going to make the grid more resilient.
Different products have paybacks at different times. I was just out in Denver at the Federal Center, which is the biggest group of civilian federal employees outside of Washington. And there’s a lot of opportunity for energy efficiency out there. They moved towards quad-pane windows, and the payback was less than three years in reduced energy costs.
We’re also doing a lot to collaborate in public-private partnerships, so we can stretch our dollars even further. The first step is make the envelope of the building more efficient. And you can do that with windows. You can do it with smart lighting and all kinds of other things about the building itself. And then once you have created efficiencies, you can add rooftop solar or add batteries.
In Oklahoma City, at the Federal Building, is a terrific example where we did all of those things, and then connected to the grid. Oklahoma Gas & Electric is able to tap into those high-capacity batteries we have in our Federal Building at moments of peak energy use in that community. That helps with their load balancing, which ultimately can help with grid resilience.
So we’re really excited to partner with our private sector colleagues to make these things happen and save money.
BS: On top of trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save taxpayers money, are you adding to that mix support for American manufacturing and labor? Or do you have to offshore to make sure that you’re doing this in a way that is low cost?
RC: We are absolutely focused on this being American jobs. The President says all the time when he hears about investing in America and the green energy economy and the clean energy economy, he thinks jobs. And we do too.
For me, all of this is a triple win. The first is about creating good-paying American jobs and innovation. The second is about reducing energy consumption, which lowers costs on taxpayers. And the third is about making the planet healthier for our kids. So it is an absolute triple win, and that’s how we always think of these projects.
BS: You mentioned earlier your work on ports of entry. Is that helping the administration better manage the flow of migrants? Does it help the administration halt the flow of fentanyl? And does it help strengthen or alleviate supply chain disruptions?
RC: Our job is to support the mission of the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. They do all of those things.
I was down in San Luis at the border crossing in Arizona a few months ago. We’re going to be doubling the number of lanes that can go through there. And what improving that infrastructure means for them on the ground is that they can put in more of the equipment they need to be able to do drug interdiction.
More lanes also means less congestion and an easier flow of traffic.
There are a lot of folks who are our agricultural workers who walk through that land port of entry by foot, rather than by car, every day to work and then go home. And so it helps that as well. So, yes, to all of those.
BS: What is the timeframe for these projects? Are they all shovel ready? Will people see activity before Election Day, November 2024?
RC: We’ve already begun deploying some of funds already. But as you know, construction projects take some time to ramp up. So for ones that were shovel ready, we were able to get things out the door.
We did our first project with [bipartisan infrastructure law] money back in May 2022, and it took 25 days. We got environmentally friendly asphalt put down along the Arizona border.
We announced another tranche of projects back in December last year, and they’re all in various stages.
But one of the things we’re trying to do is pilot some things. So I mentioned on low-embodied carbon, we have to make sure that those products are available in all parts of the country where we need to do work. So we are beginning to do pilot projects on concrete, asphalt, steel, and glass to see what the availability is of those products.
There’s just a lot of action. I was at the Green Build Conference in Washington, which is the biggest gathering of folks in the construction industry thinking about sustainability, and there is a real buzz happening, because there’s so much opportunity to have a big impact.
BS: Sometimes people love projects when they’re finished, but don’t love them while they’re in the middle of the construction phase. Are there disruptions to communities that you expect will happen?
RC: When the roadworks are happening, it’s never great. But it’s always better when it’s finished. So the key there is just to have really close communications with local communities, and our teams do that all the time.
Sometimes they’re more complicated, frankly, on the border because you’re talking to people on both sides of the border. And so there are lots of stakeholders to manage. The good news is that our team has done a lot of this over the years and this kind of community engagement is something we really take very seriously.
BS: You have referred to the GSA as the nation’s biggest landlord. This is the time when the commercial real estate industry has been under great duress. After the pandemic, we’ve had this big shift toward telecommuting, a lot of vacant space, a lot of cities wondering what to do with their downtowns. How is the GSA been affected by all this? And how are you responding to it?
RC: Yeah, that’s a great question. But the real estate market is going through a transition, there’s no doubt about it. And our job at GSA is to really serve our agency partners and customers. Understanding what their new workplace postures are going to look like going forward is the best way we serve them.
There are a lot of uncertainties in that still, because I don’t think anybody’s landed exactly where they think they’re going to be forever.
We have to figure out how to provide more flexible workspaces or agencies, and consolidate where we can. So that’s what we’re focused on, creating the workspaces of the future.
Over at our headquarters in Washington, we created a thing called the Workplace Innovation Lab. And basically it was taking a wing of a building and configuring it in different ways. So it wasn’t the traditional one person sitting at a desk in an office with a closed door. It’s more open workspaces. It’s more collaboration spaces.
So it’s more about how people, when they show up in offices, like to work and collaborate these days. And the reception and reaction to that has been fantastic. Thousands and thousands of people have come in, they can use the space, they can bring their teams in for a day or a week or however long they want.
I will also say that we need to be serious about optimizing our real estate portfolio and our footprint. When we have buildings and facilities that we don’t need anymore, we need to dispose of those and make sure that they can be productively used in the communities where they’re located. So we have teams that are focused on that as well.
BS: When you make a decision to sell a property, are you having difficulty selling it because people don’t want commercial real estate downtown anymore?
RC: It really just varies by market and by building. I know that that feels like an unsatisfactory answer. But it’s absolutely true, because some buildings and facilities can be converted to residential, for example. And some can be used in other ways. It really depends on the market.
BS: Were you always planning to be the head of the GSA, or did unexpected things happen in your life that brought you to this place?
RC: No, I did not grow up as a little girl thinking I wanted to run the GSA. In fact, I didn’t have any idea it existed.
So that’s what happens in your career. You build on experiences and find out where you can make an impact.
I’m a lawyer by training, but have done a lot in business over the years, and spent some time in the academic world as well.
But I served as Secretary of State in my home state of Missouri and was elected twice to that job. And it’s very much a government service delivery job.
People who engage with government have something they need, and don’t want to fiddle around. I always say: Nowadays, we just have to make the damn websites work. In the olden days, it used to be if you were mayor, and you couldn’t plow the snow, you didn’t deserve to be mayor and you were voted out of office. Today, I think it’s really about technology tools, and making sure that people can get government services delivered to them in the same way they do with the rest of their lives.
After I finished being Secretary of State, I had lots of conversations about what I might want to do next. And what was clear to me at that time was that technology projects were the thing that caused me to lose more sleep, pretty much than anything I’d ever done when I was in office, because they always were over budget, over time, or just didn’t work.
It wasn’t long after the Obamacare [Healthcare.gov website] mess in 2013 that I got acquainted with GSA.
President Obama learned that your signature policy initiatives—if you can’t get them delivered, using technology tools effectively, then they’re a failure in the minds of the people. There were technology teams that were set up into several governments around that time, and I joined one of those at GSA called 18F.
I spent four years there, in both the Obama and Trump administrations, trying to figure out how to not reinvent the wheel everywhere, trying to figure out how to be more effective, and delivering for the American people.
When the Biden transition team reached out to find some folks to help think about the transition. I raised my hand about GSA. It was really the only place in the administration I was interested in going. Because I think government is a service delivery business and GSA is the delivery arm of the government.