On the Home Front, a Battle Over Conference Spending

By Stephen Barr
Friday, August 4, 2006

In times of war, something has to give.

The Senate yesterday approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who scours the federal budget for waste and mismanagement, that would cap spending on conferences by the Defense Department at $70 million in fiscal 2007.

Coburn said the Pentagon sent 36,000 military and civil service employees to 6,600 conferences worldwide last year at an average cost of $2,200 per person. "Of interest is that of those 6,600 conferences, 663 were held in Florida in the middle of the winter; 224 were held in Las Vegas, and 98 in Hawaii," he said.

Half the conferences, Coburn contended, could have been conducted through digital videoconferencing and saved money. "We're in a war. We're having trouble funding the war," he said.

Federal conferences, travel and bonuses are often assailed by critics of government spending as perks that are excessive or abused. Advocates for federal employees portray conferences and travel as important to the nation's trade and diplomacy and stress that some issues are better handled in person than through video links.

Coburn began questioning the government's spending on conferences in February when he chaired a Senate federal financial management subcommittee hearing. At the hearing, Coburn estimated the government has spent $1.4 billion since 2000 to underwrite and attend conferences. From 2000 to 2005, total federal conference spending increased 70 percent, he said.

Coburn's amendment would limit defense funding for domestic -- not international -- conferences and "doesn't tell them where they can go, who can go or anything else. It says they just won't spend more than $70 million," Coburn said.

The amendment was added to a multibillion-dollar defense spending bill over the objections of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the bill's manager. Stevens said that "$70 million is not a reasonable limitation," noting that the amendment would cover expenses related to conference programs, staff, travel and other conference matters.

But a move by Stevens to table the amendment lost on a 60 to 36 vote. The amendment was then accepted on a voice vote. The next test for Coburn's measure will come when House-Senate negotiators on defense spending meet in September. The House did not include a similar provision in its version of the bill.

One of the amendment's opponents, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), said in a statement after the vote that "no federal employee should be discouraged from participating in a conference as long as there is a legitimate reason to do so. It's wrong to assume that a federal employee who attends a conference in Honolulu, for example, is wasting taxpayer dollars."

Akaka pointed out that Hawaii is the headquarters of U.S. Pacific Command, the country's largest unified command, and that the state is home to nearly 45,000 active-duty military personnel and nearly 25,000 civil service employees, including 16,500 Defense civilian workers.

A briefing paper prepared for Coburn's amendment said that the Defense Department spent more on conferences in 2005 than the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Transportation and Treasury and the Environmental Protection Agency combined.

The Pentagon will spend an estimated $77.8 million on conferences this year, the briefing paper said. Defense spending on conferences has increased most years since 2001, rising from $62.3 million that year to $79.2 million in 2005, the briefing paper said.

Among the meetings that received Pentagon support last year were the Armed Forces Bowling Conference in Orlando, the Bowling Managers Expo in Las Vegas, the Armed Forces Golf Conference in West Palm Beach, and the Craft and Hobby Association conference in Atlanta, according to the briefing paper.

Talk Shows

Colleen M. Kelley , president of the National Treasury Employees Union, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on http://federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Adm. Robert F. Willard , vice chief of naval operations, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company