Government to unfreeze lodging costs for federal travel

After a year-long freeze, the government will increase its rates for official federal travel starting Oct. 1, even as it continues to cut back employee business trips to save money.

The government’s standard rate for a night in a hotel will edge up to $83 from the current per diem of $77, the General Services Administration announced last week. The rate for meals and incidental expenses will stay the same, in the range of $46 to $71.

While the standard rate applies to 2,600 counties, about 400 areas of the country with more expensive hotel rooms, including many large cities where federal employees travel for work, will have higher lodging rates. But 29 locations that previously had qualified for the higher rates — including Jacksonville, Fla., and Greenville, S.C. — will come down to the standard category.

The rates set the maximum that federal employees can be reimbursed for lodging and food while traveling.

The higher rates followed an examination of the best strategy to reduce government travel costs in the wake of budget cuts and a conference scandal at the GSA, which sets rates for lodging, meals and other travel expenses for federal agencies.

After revelations in 2011 that the GSA’s Public Buildings Service spent $823,000 on a four-day Las Vegas junket, the Office of Management and Budget ordered travel slashed government-wide by 30 percent.

The GSA decided to freeze daily lodging rates for a year as it evaluated whether they were too high in big metropolitan markets. A committee considered removing more costly hotels from the annual sample used to calculate rates.

But the hospitality industry fought any move to lower the rates, and the GSA decided to stick with its methodology. The agency also apparently believed that in the improving economy it was unwise to continue freezing rates.

Government travel rates are generally 5 percent below market rates.

Reimbursements for travel to the Washington area will go down $7 a night starting in October, to $219. In other cities, the per diem will rise.

In a posting on the GSA blog Friday, Anne Rung, the associate administrator of government-wide policy, said the Obama administration has “implemented strict policies and controls to ensure that all travel and conference expenditures are cost-effective.”

But she noted that “there are circumstances in which travel is necessary.”

“Federal employees routinely have to travel to serve the American people,” Rung wrote. “This means fulfilling responsibilities that range from inspecting airplanes and airlines and ensuring that they are operating safely, to performing criminal investigations that span across multiple jurisdictions, to assisting victims of natural disasters.”

The GSA is taking other steps to control travel costs, with a voluntary program called FedRooms.com that provides federal travelers with competitive rates for hotel rooms below per diem rates.

The agency also has eliminated a lodging allowance for conferences that allowed federal employees to spend 25 percent more than per diem rates when they travel to such events. The move will save the government $10 million in fiscal 2014, GSA officials said.

The agency has also issued a request for proposals for a new system to manage and report the $17 billion the government spends annually on travel to help it control costs.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.

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