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Congress, Obama take aim at conference costs after GSA scandal

Sep. 7, 2012 - 03:13PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
The National Conference Center, a privately run 917-room facility in Northern Virginia, is feeling the backlash from the General Services Administration's now-notorious Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas.
The National Conference Center, a privately run 917-room facility in Northern Virginia, is feeling the backlash from the General Services Administration's now-notorious Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas. ()


At less than an hour’s drive from Washington, the National Conference Center is a long way from Nevada. But the privately run 917-room facility in Northern Virginia is feeling the backlash from the General Services Administration’s now-notorious Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas.

Since news of that 2010 extravaganza broke in April, “we have lost potential bookings of millions of dollars,” General Manager Kurt Krause said in an interview. Although Krause expects total business to be on par with 2011, thanks to new work from the FBI for leadership training, this won’t be the growth year he had hoped for.

“If the federal government continues to go this route, I need to find a new business model,“ he said.

The Obama administration has already ordered cuts to travel budgets and banned agencies from spending more than $500,000 on individual conferences except under unusual circumstances. Starting in January, agencies must also publicly report on all gatherings in the preceding fiscal year that cost more than $100,000.

Some members of Congress want to lock in similar restrictions permanently — or go even further.

Under one bill, HR 4472, introduced by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., agencies would have to slash travel spending in fiscal 2013 and 2014 to half of this year’s levels. The Defense Department, FBI, Capitol Police and four other law enforcement agencies would be exempt. Another bill, HR 4631, sponsored by Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., would order agency heads to submit quarterly itemized reports on every conference costing $100,000 or more and attended by 50 employees or more. A third bill, S 3481, by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would require agency leaders to personally approve any event that cost the government $200,000 or more.

None of those measures is close to becoming law, but federal managers have gotten the message, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

“I’m already hearing from agencies that there is just a huge cutback,” Palguta said. “They definitely don’t want to be visible under the microscope.”

While the proposed legislation may be well-intended, he added, it is a “blunt instrument” that could reduce needed investment in training and development. It could also cut into government openness as fewer employees show up at conferences to explain their work.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, is worried about the possible impact on its annual meeting scheduled for February in Boston.

“About 10 percent of our sessions are organized by federal scientists,” said Joanne Carney, the association’s director of government relations. At this point, Carney said, the group doesn’t know whether those researchers will be allowed to attend or make presentations.

This year, the government expects to spend almost $14.8 billion on “travel and transportation of persons,” according to an annual report by the Office of Management and Budget. That’s a 7 percent drop from $15.9 billion last year; OMB does not break out how much of that is related to meetings and other gatherings. The agency forecasts another 13 percent cut to $12.9 billion in 2013.

But congressional outrage was stoked by the revelation of the GSA conference, which cost $823,000, with spending that was “excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible,” according to a report by the agency’s inspector general. Last month, lawmakers’ ire turned to the Veterans Affairs Department, where two 2011 conferences in Orlando, Fla., that cumulatively cost $5 million are under investigation by that department’s IG.

Under HR 1627, signed into law last month, VA must now tell Congress of any conference costing more than $20,000. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement that the panel will make sure the new requirement is “strictly enforced.”

But time is running out for lawmakers to enact broader restrictions, despite efforts to sandwich them into major legislation on other issues. In April, for example, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., won approval for an amendment to a postal bill, S 1789, that would reduce agency conference spending to 80 percent of 2010 levels. After passing the Senate, the bill is still awaiting House action and has little chance of winning final approval before year’s end.

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