Federal Diary: New federal limits on travel, meetings

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 14, 2012

New government-wide restrictions on federal travel and meetings are the inevitable fallout from the General Services Administration scandal involving an excessive Las Vegas conference.

Jeffrey D. Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a memo to government officials Friday saying, “Each agency shall spend at least 30 percent less on travel expenses covered by this memorandum than in FY 2010.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

An accompanying blog post by Zients outlined new rules that “require Deputy Secretaries to review any conference where the agency spending could exceed $100,000” and “prohibit agencies from spending over $500,000 on a conference unless the agency’s Secretary approves a waiver.”

The 2010 GSA gathering cost about $823,000. A recent inspector general report on it led to the resignation of the agency’s administrator, the firing of other officials and angst all over government. Congress also has moved to limit conference expenditures.

At some point, it’s worth asking whether the effort to limit conference and travel spending could hurt the need of government employees to gain the training and information required to better serve the public.

Conferences are “where the ideas come to fruition, or start,” said Ross Bell, a lobbyist for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. It hosts technical meetings attended by government scientists.

“This guidance will not hamper the ability of federal employees to do their jobs for the American people,” said Daniel Werfel, controller of OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management. “What this guidance does is make sure that agency officials are careful when using taxpayer dollars in fulfilling their agencies’ missions and held accountable for their decisions.”

Another point in OMB’s guidance requires agencies to post their conference spending online. That “should be a major deterrent to the kind of reckless spending that occurred at GSA’s western regions conference,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The cutback in government travel and conference spending also has ramifications for those outside government. As my colleague Danielle Douglas reported Monday, a drop in spending could hurt the hospitality industry, particularly in Washington.

In an interview, Werfel said the 30 percent figure was based on good progress agencies made toward an earlier goal of reducing spending by 20 percent.

“That gave us a base line of understanding in terms of what agencies could and could not do,” Werfel said. After talking with agency officials, “we determined collectively that an additional 10 percent reduction was achievable.”

But with some exceptions.

Zients’s memo said certain expenses can be excluded from the 30 percent target if an agency head determines inclusion “would undermine such critical government functions as national security, international diplomacy, health and safety inspections, law enforcement, or site visits required for oversight or investigatory purposes.”

Separate Republican-sponsored bills passed by the House and Senate also have a $500,000 restriction on conferences. Curiously, Republican National Committee spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski issued a statement making fun of the Obama rules, without mentioning that congressional Republicans advanced a similar policy. She said the $500,000 restriction would require the GSA to choose between having a “mind reader or magician, not both” at its conference. Perhaps this is a case of the right hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. She did not respond to a request for comment.

John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), sponsor of the Senate bill, was critical of the exceptions in the OMB policy, but said it is “a step in the right direction.”

Organizations that stage conferences regard some elements of the congressional approach as going in the wrong direction. The groups signed a letter to Congress circulated by the American Society of Association Executives. It said language in the bills “would mean that if employees of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) attended a scientific conference sponsored by a medical association, no other employees of the Department of Health and Human Services could attend any other conference held by that same association for the remainder of the fiscal year.”

The letter is less than two pages, and the list of organizations signing it runs 25 pages.

Hart said the intent of Coburn’s bill is clear, “but we will be happy to clarify that further.”

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service (which has a content- sharing relationship with The Washington Post), understands the need to eliminate wasteful spending, but he said “across the board cuts are problematic because some agencies have fat and others don’t.

“The reality is the misdeeds that we saw at the GSA conference are the exception and not the rule and we should manage to the rule not the exception.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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