The government meetings business is in a tough spot these days. After a 2012 scandal over the General Services Administration spending millions on lavish Las Vegas conferences, and another involving the Internal Revenue Service, the Obama administration passed tough new rules capping travel and lodging expenses, forcing agencies to send fewer staffers to conferences and sometimes pull out all together. You can understand why the president reacted so quickly: $16 muffins, even when they turn out to not exist, are the kind of thing that undermine the public's faith in government (and make people less willing to pay their taxes).
Well, according to the U.S. Travel Association, they should probably just not worry about it so much. Meetings are not only great for collaboration and coordination, the highly effective trade group argues in a new report, but also a significant contribution to the economy: 343,800 jobs, and a total economic impact of $24.4 billion in 2011. All for just $17.87 billion in direct spending — only 0.2 percent of the federal budget! Oh, and government meetings also create $5.5 billion in tax revenue — they're basically paying for themselves!
Clearly, there is some utility to bureaucrats getting out of the office, eating from buffets together and sitting on panels. The report outlines a few sad situations where the military canceled an occasion to talk about about health systems, and NASA and the Air Force sat out an international conference on space. It also polls government officials, who confirm that they really do like going to these things, and private sector folks who say it's helpful to have government people around at their functions.
The U.S. Travel Association's definition of valuable government spending, though, covers pretty much anything that pumps money into the economy. Somebody's getting employed by all those expensive muffins, after all (unless it's just corporate executives padding profit margins). File under: One man's stimulus is another man's waste.