This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," May 20, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.
JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The federal courts are in need of money, paying a billion dollars a year in rent — about a fifth of their annual budget. But here's the kicker: The landlord is the federal government itself.
Jeff Birnbaum, columnist and national correspondent for the Washington Post, joins us. Jeff, today's big question: Why doesn't the government just cut itself a break — lower its own rent and give the courts some more money to operate with?
JEFF BIRNBAUM, COLUMNIST/NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON POST: Well, that was exactly what the Senate Judiciary Committee (search) is asking of the General Services Administration. That's the group that is receiving the rent.
And the General Service Administration says, "Well, we'd like to, I guess, but we really can't because of laws that are already on the books that prevent the GSA from charging anything but market rate rents, even to another part of the federal government."
And so here we have the specter of maybe 100-year-old courtrooms and court buildings that are paid for, that are completely paid for, long paid for, that are charging market rate rents, as if it was a building that was still being paid off. And the judiciary is paying another part of the federal government for that, from one pocket to another.
GIBSON: OK, but Jeff, they need money. If their rent were cut in half by their landlord, their own government, would they have enough money to function?
BIRNBAUM: Well, they still are very short. If they don't have this rent cut, the judiciary claims that they're going to have to cut maybe 4,000 jobs around the country. And they already are short on, believe it or not, space. And there have long been complaints about dockets being overcrowded.
But if, let's say, the GSA goes ahead and gives this rent relief, the GSA will be short half a billion dollars. And they'll have to go back to Congress to get that money in order to make its own budget match up with what's expected of it.
GIBSON: OK. Now, the committee of Congress that did this knows how itself works, knows how Congress works. Why didn't somebody just go and propose a bill and say let's cut the court's rent and not ask the GSA anything. Just change the law?
BIRNBAUM: Well, because it would have to be a change of law for all sorts of different parts of the federal government. It's not just the judiciary, not just the courts that have to pay at market rates. It's all sorts of other parts of the government.
The reason, I think, makes some sense. That is you don't want to have to be even perceived as receiving a favor — that is getting below-market rents.
Unfortunately, this applies both to rents that are paid to Uncle Sam as well as those paid to the private sector. So there would have to be a larger bill passed to exempt just the government.
And the problem would be the GSA would be short of money. That means that some other group of lawmakers would have to come up with that extra half billion.
GIBSON: My head is swimming, Jeff. This doesn't make sense.
BIRNBAUM: Well, of course not. This is the government.
GIBSON: Jeff Birnbaum. Appreciate it, Jeff.
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