Obama spending cuts target federal agencies’ travel, technology and swag

First came a two-year pay freeze for federal workers. Now, the tote bags have to go, too. And the mugs, mouse pads, T-shirts and other items that bear the names of agencies and often are given away to employees and the general public.

The reduction in swag is part of President Obama’s order Wednesday that agencies must make 20 percent spending cuts on government-paid travel, vehicles and technology — and the freebies handed out to help promote an agency’s mission.

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President Obama issued an executive order on Wednesday to cut federal agency spending, including travel, conferences and giveaways, by 20 percent. The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe shows off the government swag he has collected over the years.

President Obama issued an executive order on Wednesday to cut federal agency spending, including travel, conferences and giveaways, by 20 percent. The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe shows off the government swag he has collected over the years.

The executive order is part of the administration’s effort to cut spending and the latest in a series of executive actions meant to help jump-start the sputtering economy.

Agencies have until mid-December to find ways to cut travel, equipment and technology budgets. The move probably means it will be more difficult for some federal workers to get a new government-issued laptop or smartphone. Fewer political appointees will be ferried around Washington in federally owned sedans, and government-sponsored conferences with industry partners, often hosted in resort destinations such as Las Vegas, could be relocated to downtown Washington or canned altogether.

“At a time when families have had to cut back, have had to make some tough decisions about getting rid of things that they don’t need in order to make the investments that they do, we thought that it was entirely appropriate for our governments and our agencies to try to root out waste, large and small, in a systematic way,” Obama said Wednesday at an Oval Office signing ceremony.

Wednesday’s orders would save $4 billion annually in administrative costs that would be put toward other agency operations, according to Kenneth Baer, the Office of Management and Budget communications director. Each agency will be responsible for assessing costs and determining what should be cut, he said.

Obama said agency bosses will need to limit official travel to circumstances when employees cannot perform their duties in their primary office, such as diplomatic missions or enforcement inspections. Employees will be permitted to attend local meetings or conferences, but agencies will need to find federally owned conference space for future meetings.

The president is also asking agencies to scrap unused wireless service contracts and stop assigning some federal employees multiple computers, laptops or phones. The White House said the Department of Homeland Security has already cut $10.5 million worth of unused cellphones and air cards and the Commerce Department plans to save $3 million this year by disconnecting 2,648 inactive wireless accounts.

Federal agencies spend about $9 million annually to transport top officials around Washington, but Obama wants agencies to limit the number of top officials eligible for the perk. Depending on what agencies decide, several top officials now eligible for a government-paid ride may need to hail a cab instead.

And then there’s the swag.

Agencies will have to limit the purchase of “promotional items” — lapel pins, cuff links, cozies and notebooks emblazoned with agency seals. Administration officials said the new orders will not affect baseball caps and windbreakers worn by federal law enforcement officials in the field or commemorative “challenge coins” distributed by military commanders to troops and their spouses.

Several agencies contacted Wednesday said they were reviewing the orders and would incorporate them into cuts already underway.

Reactions to the cuts among rank-and-file workers Wednesday were mixed.

Angelia Levy, who works at the Federal Judicial Center, said most agencies have already cut back as much as possible.

“Office swag, fancy dinners and lunches aren’t as rampant as those outside the federal government would think, at least in my experience,” she said.

Steve Meacham, a Farm Service Agency employee, agreed. In an e-mail, he said the Agriculture Department’s Washington headquarters already “has removed every other light bulb in the halls, consolidated office space, barely heats the space enough to keep pipes from freezing, has cut cleaning to the bone (creating a vermin problem), and leaves many employees to purchase their own office supplies.”

Federal worker Michael Kelmachter called potential swag cutbacks frustrating. “I like working for my agency and want to show pride in it and our mission — the same way that I would for a favorite sports team,” he said.

But Kelmachter said his colleagues “are much more concerned with pay freezes, overall staffing cuts and the general feeling of disrespect that we get whenever we are used as political punching bags and punch lines.”

Federal workers are at the halfway point of a two-year pay freeze and face the prospect of layoffs or buyouts at some agencies. Obama’s budget director, Jacob J. Lew, last week didn’t rule out further pay freezes or forcing federal employees to pay more for their health care. That same day a committee in the Republican-controlled House approved a bill that would replace every three workers who leave federal jobs with just one new hire.

Before getting to such measures, however, Office of Personnel Management employee Bob O’Brien said, there will still be other areas that could trim, such as a travel.

“I see people flying to regional offices that are close enough that they could drive instead,” he said. “Plus, we can now WebEx and videoconference call instead of traveling all the time.”

Such thinking frustrates Robert Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, who warned Obama in a letter Wednesday that government travel restrictions “will only lead to job and revenue loss for travel businesses, less cooperation between federal agencies and the private sector, and a decrease in the efficiency and productivity of government.”

 
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