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Lawmakers rip OMB’s claim of nearly 30% cut in travel spending

Feb. 28, 2013 - 05:15PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments

The government will cut travel spending by more than $3 billion by the end of this year from 2010 levels, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Roughly $2 billion of that cut was accomplished between fiscal 2010 and 2012, and more than another $1 billion will be cut this year, OMB says.

The 2010 baseline travel spending figure was $11.7 billion, OMB Controller Danny Werfel told lawmakers Wednesday. That figure excludes $5.2 billion in travel spending that is not included in the baseline because it was for national security, international diplomacy, health and safety inspections, law enforcement, oversight and investigatory site visits, OMB said.

OMB’s goal, set last May, is to cut 30 percent of travel spending from 2010 levels by the end of this year. That goal allows agency heads to exempt several categories of travel from the spending baseline set in 2010.

“We are zeroing in on a rough 30 percent goal in terms of seeing the overall travel spend reduction,” Werfel said.

That goal would translate to a cut of $3.5 billion from the $11.7 billion baseline.

But Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are not impressed by Werfel’s reported progress. Committee spokesman Ali Ahmad said that based on the $16.9 billion in total federal travel spending in 2010 — before the exemptions were applied — the $2 billion cut in the last two years amounts to only a 12 percent cut. That is far less than the 30 percent cuts OMB claims are within range, he said.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a Feb. 27 release that total federal travel spending last year was $14.8 billion, citing OMB figures. That is the amount of total travel spending, before exemptions were applied.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee on the federal workforce, said agencies are not being fully transparent about their conference spending.

“The president is deploying scare tactics on sequestration even while federal agencies are wasting money on unnecessary conferences and $47 lunches,” Farenthold said. “The White House budget office is putting more effort into telling our committee that things are OK than trying to change the culture of excess.”

The committee said agencies last year spent more than $340 million on 894 conferences that cost more than $100,000. [Federal Times reported Wednesday the government spent $268 million to attend or host 767 conferences that cost more than $100,000, but those figures did not include spending by the Veterans Affairs Department, whose figures were not available at the time.]

OMB ordered agencies in May to publicly report on all conferences that cost more than $100,000.

One-quarter of that spending came from the Defense Department, which spent $89 million on 295 conferences last year. The Veterans Affairs Department spent almost $73 million on 127 conferences.

The Health and Human Services Department spent $56 million on 140 conferences. The Justice Department attended 107 conferences for a cost of $59 million. And the Department of Homeland Security attended 35 conferences for a cost of $8 million.

Travel for non-Defense agencies nearly doubled — from $3 billion to $5.8 billion — in the period from 2001 to 2012, while Defense Department travel increased during that period by roughly 50 percent, from $6 billion to $9 billion, the committee said.

Some lawmakers are already taking steps to dial back federal travel spending. One example is HR 313, the Government Spending Accountability Act, which proposes prohibiting agencies from sending more than 50 employees to international conferences. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who resigned in January. It has no co-sponsors and is not scheduled for a vote. But the committee said it expects to pass a similar law this year.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., criticized the bill. The annual International AIDS Society Conference, which will be held in Malaysia this year, is often attended by hundreds of employees from several agencies, Lynch said.

“I’ve heard grumblings from some folks in our scientific community” about the potential caps, Lynch said.

Emerson’s bill would also require agencies to publish quarterly reports on their travel expenses, and bar agencies from spending more than $500,000 on a single conference, unless an agency head decides it is justified and tells Congress why he granted a waiver.

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