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Federal travel sees steep drop

GSA scandal, tight budgets spur decrease

Aug. 8, 2012 - 12:13PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments

Federal travel has plummeted 16 percent so far this year, according to government data.

Federal travel spending hit $6.5 billion through the end of July — down from $7.7 billion for the same period last fiscal year.

Experts point to tighter budgets and a dramatic cutback in travel following news reports in April of a scandalous 2010 General Services Administration conference that cost $823,000 and forced out the agency’s top leaders.

So far this year, the biggest drop in travel spending has been at the Social Security Administration, which saw a 43 percent decline — from $19 million through July of fiscal 2011 to less than $11 million so far in fiscal 2012.

Spending at the Defense Department for civilian travel has fallen 16 percent so far this year — more than $728 million — from nearly $4.7 billion in 2011 to $3.9 billion in fiscal 2012.

At GSA, which imposed strict new guidelines for the approval of federal travel, spending has fallen 39 percent since last year — from $21 million through July of fiscal 2011 to $13 million through July of fiscal 2012.

Even before the GSA conference scandal broke in April, the administration was trying to cut back. The Office of Management and Budget in November directed agencies to cut travel spending 20 percent below 2010 levels. Travel is allowed only for enforcement inspections, diplomatic missions or when the activity can be performed only by traveling.

But after the GSA scandal broke, official travel appeared to be all but squelched for many feds.

Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini has canceled 36 conferences since taking charge of the agency in April, according to spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara.

And in April, Tangherlini prohibited GSA employees from traveling to events “lasting portions of one or more days” except when strict conditions are met. The directive is in effect through September.

Tangherlini’s directive also requires that GSA conference planners get four layers of approval before spending money on conferences intended to promote GSA services to external audiences. Such conferences must be approved by the chief financial officer and three others, Tangherlini wrote.

Tangherlini restricted allowable conferences and travel only to situations in which:

• The conference or meeting is to “perform GSA’s essential mission functions,” such as audits or building inspections.

• A routine meeting requires an in-person presence, teleconferencing has been considered, and it’s been approved by the acting administrator or deputy administrator.

• Travel is related to essential training.

Other restrictions have been felt across government. In May, OMB directed agencies to cut travel spending by 30 percent in 2013 compared to a 2010 baseline.

Rick Singer, executive director of the Society of Government Travel Professionals, said federal spending on travel has dropped nearly 30 percent at some travel agencies.

He said many federal managers fear allowing any travel by their staffs because of the intense scrutiny being given federal travel amid budget cuts and recent scandals.

“Before they react, they need to think about what the impact is for everybody,” Singer said.

Ted Lawson, president of National Travel in Charleston, W.Va., which helps manage travel for federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he has yet to see a drop in travel but that he is anticipating cuts.

“Every agency is tightening their belts and making sure that all travel is justified,” Lawson said.

The Department of Homeland Security is the only agency whose travel spending has increased, climbing 5 percent so far in fiscal 2012.

Travel spending may drop even further as GSA eyes drastic cuts — as high as 30 percent in some cases — to per diem rates for next fiscal year, said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association.

Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said: “The federal government is looking to cut costs across all categories of spending, and travel is no different.”

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