Pick to lead GSA is popular, but faces political challenges

Emily Murphy, President Trump's pick to lead the General Services Administration, has earned respect from industry, but her selection comes at a tricky time for the agency and Washington alike.

Emily Murphy/GSA administrator designate
 

Emily Murphy, Trump's pick to lead GSA, has long experience in the government procurement world.

With her experience at the General Services Administration, the Small Business Administration and House Small Business Committee, Emily Murphy's confirmation as GSA administrator isn't in doubt, industry observers say. But she's going to face some tough questions from Congress before moving on to the challenges of running a large and complex agency.

Murphy was among 42 senior level appointments announced in a news release by the White House the evening of Sept. 1.

Her formal appointment has been anticipated by the federal procurement community since she moved from the House Armed Services Committee this spring to work as a senior advisor for GSA Acting Administrator Tim Horne.

"She will hit the ground running and help drive the Trump administration [acquisition] agenda when confirmed," predicted Mike Hettinger, managing principal at the Hettinger Strategy Group. Murphy, he said, is very knowledgeable about GSA's critical issues, such as category management, how to wring value out of contracts, as well as more complicated matters such as how the Thornberry amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act might affect IT Schedule 70.

"It's good to see the appointment, but it's a big job," he said.

Murphy is an old GSA hand. She served as the agency's first chief acquisition officer during the George W. Bush administration. In that role, she helped transform the agency's assisted acquisition centers and consolidated the Federal Supply Services and the Federal Technology Service.

More recently, Murphy was policy director and senior counsel of the House Small Business Committee, serving three different committee chairmen.

"Emily is extremely well qualified for the job from her previous experience with the agency and on Capitol Hill," said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners. "She doesn't have to be brought up to speed" on the agency's mission or its operational details.

"Emily's operational, budgetary, and policy experience in the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the private sector will be a great asset for GSA as it navigates the evolving procurement opportunities and challenges of the 21st century marketplace," said Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, in a Sept. 2 statement on the nomination.

Despite their praise, however, federal procurement experts are concerned Murphy faces some immediately rough political waters during the confirmation process -- and warned that the process itself could be derailed by issues unrelated to GSA.

The two issues some say Murphy will take considerable political heat for during her confirmation at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are the agency's lease for the Trump International Hotel and the recent cancellation of the search for a Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters site.

In late August, the GSA Office of Inspector General began a formal look into how the agency handled the lease of the federally owned building that is now the Washington, D.C., Trump International Hotel. A GSA contracting officer had earlier ruled that there were no conflicts or other issues arising from the president's lease. The lease remains controversial because of concerns over how Trump might benefit from it.

In July, the GSA cancelled its search for real estate for the FBI's headquarters building. The agency had been looking for land in Maryland and Virginia suburbs around Washington that could accommodate a new FBI headquarters complex, citing ongoing funding concerns.

Having both the Trump Hotel lease and the FBI headquarters decision in the news at the same charges the atmosphere ahead of Murphy's confirmation hearing, said observers.

"GSA is fraught with issues" that have garnered national attention, said Allen. "Emily's nomination will give Senate democrats the opportunity to make political hay."

"It will be interesting to see how" those two issues play in the confirmation process, said Hettinger. "It will come up in confirmation."

Whether the issue will stick to Murphy is another question. One source familiar with Murphy's work as senior advisor for acting administrator Timothy Horne said she had been kept away from working on the lease and FBI search.

It might be some time before Murphy has to answer those questions, as the confirmation hearing itself faces some political and calendar complications on Capitol Hill.

For instance, the confirmation could be placed on hold by Senate Democrats as leverage in larger congressional fights that loom over the debt ceiling, fiscal year 2018 budget and tax reform, said Allen.

Given the current legislative calendar, Murphy's confirmation process might stretch out until the end of November or even early December, said Allen, Hettinger and others.

Another challenge is the persistent vacancy in the top job at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, based at OMB.

"OFPP is the other piece of the federal procurement puzzle," said Allen, adding that "no one has a clue about who is being considered for OFPP."

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