Federal travel and conferences: Spending down, as lawmakers consider more restrictions

GSA chief Dan Tangherlini (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
GSA chief Dan Tangherlini (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Federal agencies have slashed spending on travel and conferences in the aftermath of several high-profile abuses, but some lawmakers said Tuesday the government must be careful not to go overboard by restricting productive gatherings that improve government services.

At a Senate hearing on conference and travel spending across the government, top Obama administration officials and three inspectors general who have revealed excesses at the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the General Services Administration described a new culture of restraint, triggered by both bad publicity and sharp spending cuts.

“At some level, you can’t legislate common sense,” GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “We needed a solid dose of it. We have that now.”

But the $1.1 trillion funding bill congressional negotiators unveiled Monday does attempt to put some restrictions into law, at least for the rest of the fiscal year. Agencies would have to submit reports to their inspector general on any conference that costs more than $100,000 and include the number of participants, the purpose and a detailed breakdown of food and other costs.

Inspectors general also would need to be informed of conferences that cost more than $20,000. Agencies could not send more than 50 employees to an international conference, unless it involves law enforcement personnel.

Tangherlini took over at GSA following revelations that top officials in the agency’s public buildings department held a training conference for 300 employees off the Las Vegas strip in 2010 that seemed to many to be little more than a junket–with a mind-reader, lavish parties in after-hours suites and over-the-top videos celebrating the excess.

New rules put in place by the Office of Management and Budget have resulted in sharply curtailed travel and conference spending, more oversight over what money is spent and increased use of technology to train employees instead of flying them to expensive hotels.

The question on some lawmakers’ minds now is how to ensure that the austerity measures are not a fad that will fade with a new presidential administration. At the same time, several senators said they worry that the meaningful business of government could be stymied by travel restrictions.

“We have to be careful,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), explaining that federal employees need to travel routinely to his state to meet with farmers about subsidies and other programs.

“It’s too easy to sit there and pound on one agency because they had an exorbitant conference at the expense of other agencies that are doing their travel right,” Tester said.

Beth Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management, assured him that it is not the Obama administration’s intention to curtail valuable training for federal employees and meetings with contractors or constituents who deal with the government.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member, is sponsoring permanent legislation that would further restrict travel and conferences, prohibiting an agency from spending more than $500,000 on a single conference, requiring officials to publish on their Web site the minutes, speeches, exhibits, videos and  sponsors of a conference– and several other restrictions.

“There’s a spotlight right now,” Coburn said. “Everybody’s focusing on it. That isn’t going to be the case five years from now. It’s go to be through forced transparency.”

Tangherlini and Cobert did not seem inclined to press for legislation, although the new regulations in the budget bill were not discussed.

“The transparency we’ve put in place will help us maintain the focus we’ve put on this issue,” Cobert told the senator.

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