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Travel spending plummets 17%

Drop follows a 6% decline in 2012

Aug. 26, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
New York Aerial Views
Federal travel card spending is down 17 percent so far in fiscal 2013. Pictured: An American Airlines jet taxis on the runway at Laguardia Airport in New York. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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Federal travel card spending is down 17 percent so far in fiscal 2013 compared with the same period last year.

The cut — from $6.9 billion to about $5.7 billion — in spending through the General Services Administration’s SmartPay charge card program follows a 6 percent decline in 2012. That year, travel spending fell from $9.6 billion in fiscal 2011 to less than $9 billion, according to the SmartPay program.

The SmartPay program has more than 2.5 million card holders across the government. There are no comprehensive governmentwide travel spending numbers.

The administration attributes the decline to “aggressive steps” to cut conference spending. Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Ari Isaacman Astles said the administration has installed strict controls to make sure travel funding is spent wisely.

The travel restrictions were in response to an April 2012 inspector general report that detailed a 2010 General Services Administration conference that cost $823,000 and forced out the agency’s top leaders.

She said agencies have lowered their travel spending by $2 billion since the new restrictions went into effect.

In May 2012, OMB released a memo directing agencies to reduce travel spending by 30 percent compared with 2010 levels and to maintain those levels through 2016. Agencies also have to report annually on any conference spending in excess of $100,000, and employees must seek senior management approval for conference spending.

“Each agency needs to focus any conference and travel spending on mission-critical activities and to ensure any related spending best serves the American people and is an effective and efficient use of federal funds,” Astles said.

Among the cutbacks:

■ The Agriculture Department reduced its spending by $125 million in fiscal 2012 by cutting unneeded trips. The agency is on track to reduce its total travel spending by $90 million in 2013 compared with 2010 levels.

■ The Drug Enforcement Agency instituted a mandatory policy requiring agencies to use the lowest available airfare for all traffic, saving $6.5 million in fiscal 2012.

■ The Interior Department has increased the use of teleconferencing, videoconferencing and webinars to reduce the need for employee travel, saving $30 million on travel since the policies were implemented.

■ The General Services Administration reported one of the biggest drops in travel spending, according to SmartPay numbers. Spending fell from more than $8 million through July of fiscal 2012 to only $3 million so far in 2013 — a 62 percent drop.

GSA spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said the agency has eliminated nearly 50 conferences and has implemented travel reforms throughout the agency to limit spending to essential functions.

In 2013, the agency canceled its annual Training Conference and Expo, as well as FedForum and Fed Fleet, because budget cuts reduced expected attendance.

She said the new policies have saved the agency $28 million compared with 2010 levels.

Rick Singer, executive director of the Society of Government Travel Professionals and member of the General Services Administration’s travel advisory committee, said the drop in travel spending is a combination of administration efforts to cut spending and the ongoing effects of sequestration.

“The number of trips agencies are justifying is going down significantly,” Singer said. “It has a huge effect on everything from training and tax revenue to the vendors themselves,” he said.

One of the few agencies to report an increase in spending was the Small Business Administration, with spending rising from $11 million through July of fiscal 2012 to $22 million so far in fiscal 2013.

Spokeswoman Emily Cain said the increase is because of the “unprecedented level of travel” the agency has undertaken in response to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy.

“SBA is responsible for providing affordable, timely and accessible financial assistance to homeowners, renters and businesses following a disaster. Hurricane Sandy was the third largest natural disaster in U.S. history for the agency,” Cain said.

She said non-disaster-related travel fell from $6.5 million in fiscal 2012 to $3.4 million so far in fiscal 2013. Other agencies with large cuts in travel spending include:

■ The Defense Department, which saw a 19 percent decline from almost $4.5 billion through July of fiscal 2012 to $3.6 billion through July of fiscal 2013.

■ The Social Security Administration, which cut travel spending by 35 percent from $13.2 million through July of fiscal 2012 to $8.6 million through July of fiscal 2013.

■ The Transportation Department, which saw an 18 percent drop in travel spending from $139 million through July 2012 to $113 million through July 2013.

An Air Force employee, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said the travel cuts were a knee-jerk reaction to recent conference scandals and that even vital travel is getting cut across DoD.

“When someone craps their pants, we all have to wear diapers. This is hardly the way to run the DoD efficiently,” he said.

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