Agencies cut travel spending in fiscal 2012 by more than $600 million, according to government data.
Overall travel spending fell 6 percent — from about $9.6 billion in fiscal 2011 to nearly $9 billion in 2012 — according to data provided by the SmartPay charge card program, which has about 2.5 million cardholders across the government.
Travel experts blame tighter budgets and a cutback in travel following news reports this year of wasteful conference spending at the General Services Administration and Veterans Affairs Department.
GSA’s spending on travel fell 43 percent — from $26 million in fiscal 2011 to nearly $15 million in fiscal 2012.
In April, acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini prohibited GSA employees from traveling to events “lasting portions of one or more days” except when strict conditions are met. The directive was in effect through September.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Social Security Administration saw drops of 27 percent in travel spending.
The Labor Department was the only agency that increased its travel spending — by more than 1 percent — from $58.7 million in fiscal 2011 to $59.3 million in fiscal 2012.
Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said the cuts show that government employees are still traveling, but agencies are becoming more cost-conscious about how and when they travel. Agencies will begin pushing back against the cuts when they begin to affect training and building connections with industry, he said.
“The federal government still needs to travel,” Hansen said.
He suggested that instead of agencies rushing to cut travel budgets and politicians introducing sweeping legislation — part of what he called an overreaction — agencies should thoroughly evaluate travel budgets for effectiveness and make their spending more transparent.
“What we haven’t seen is a real thoughtful analysis by policy makers on [Capitol] Hill and the administration where they say, ‘Here is where we can cut back on travel, and here is where we absolutely cannot,‘“ Hansen said.
The Department of Homeland Security saw a below-average 5 percent cut, while the State, Transportation and Justice departments and U.S. Postal Service saw even smaller reductions.
The relatively small cutbacks at DHS and other departments reflect the critical nature of federal travel at some agencies, according to Ted Lawson, president of National Travel in Charleston, W.Va., which helps manage travel for agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He said the government response to Hurricane Sandy shows that agencies such as FEMA have critical roles that have to be carried out through travel and that cannot be cut.
Rick Singer, executive director of the Society of Government Travel Professionals, said federal spending on travel is going to remain down.
In May, the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies to cut travel spending by 30 percent in 2013 compared with a 2010 baseline.
He said he expects to see a 20 to 30 percent drop in travel spending in fiscal 2013.
“It’s not going to just ease off,” Singer said.