Federal travel spending may be nearing a plateau. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)
Federal travel spending is down about 8 percent from the same time last fiscal year, according to federal data.
Travel spending in fiscal 2014 through May is about $4.1 billion, compared to almost $4.5 billion through May of fiscal 2013, as measured by data from the General Services Administration’s SmartPay charge-card program, which covers more than 2.5 million card holders across the government.
Travel spending across the government has already fallen 27 percent since fiscal 2010 — from $9.5 billion to about $6.9 billion — as agencies deal with tight budgets and with greater travel restrictions. As agencies reach the 30-percent threshold, travel experts predict travel spending will plateau for the next few years.
The administration is making sure agencies are managing their travel spending effectively, according to Office of Management and Budget spokesman Frank Benenati. He said part of that effort was strengthening internal controls on conferences.
“To maintain this lower level of spending, agencies are evaluating and rethinking how and when they conduct conferences and travel to support their missions while making the maximum use of every taxpayer dollar,” Benenati said.
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, sparking congressional hearings and legislation.
In May 2012, the Office of Management and Budget 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.
Government funding legislation passed in January codified the rules into law and required agencies to notify their inspectors general of any conference that costs more than $20,000 and provide details of the conference.
The Department of Homeland Security spending on travel is nearly 29 percent below where it was the same time last year, and the agency is working hard to keep spending down, according to spokeswoman Nicole Stickel.
“DHS makes every effort to conduct meetings, conferences and training using the least costly method to the government, and to reduce travel and lodging costs using means such as conference calls, local area events and Web-based communications,” Stickel said.
DHS components have also undergone a secretary efficiency review where noncritical travel has been eliminated, according to Stickel. Through the review, the department has seen significant savings by eliminating non-mission critical travel, and maximizing use of Web conferences and conference calls. But when the agency does need to have a conference, it has created a review process to make sure the event is held in the area of a majority of the attendees, she said.
The agency also works hard to maximize the time spent at the conference — sometimes reducing the need to attend an extra day or two.
Agencies are going to keep looking for ways to spend less on travel and to maintain current spending levels for a few years, according to Rick Singer, executive director of the Society of Government Travel Professionals and member of the General Services Administration’s travel advisory committee.
He said while agency travel spending is down federal employees are still attending educational forums and meetings — just not in the same volumes as before.
“People are very cognizant about what conferences they attend and why they attend and what the justifications are for it. You don’t see the whole agency checking out like they may have done in the past,” he said.
Some agencies saw larger drops in spending than others, including:
■ The Small Business Administration (SBA), which saw an 81-percent drop from almost $20.2 million through May of fiscal 2013 to $3.7 million through May of fiscal 2014. Travel spending in fiscal 2013 was high because of natural disasters.
■ The Office of Personnel Management, which cut travel spending by 25 percent from $5.6 million through May of fiscal 2013 to $4.2 million through May of fiscal 2014.
■ The Treasury Department, which saw an 20-percent drop in travel spending from $64.3 million through May 2013 to $51.6 million through May 2014.
Scott Lamb, director of government sales for Hilton Hotels, said his impression of federal spending is that it has plateaued over the last few months with conferences and meetings way down.
“I think for the next fiscal year it will probably business as usual. I don’t think we are going to see any huge increases over the next couple years,” Lamb said.
He said agencies are probably going to continue controlling their discretionary spending by heavily scrutinizing travel spending and conferences.
Lawmakers are still putting pressure on agencies to reduce travel spending and rein in what they see as excessive costs. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., wrote a letter June 11 to the SBA, the Agriculture Department and NASA demanding the agencies disclose luxury travel expenses. The agencies have failed to follow requirements to report the annual spending on luxury and business-class travel, Jones said.
“The American people have a right to know how their money is being used,” Jones said in a statement. “Tax dollars pay for the travel of all federal agencies, and the government should spend that money wisely — especially at a time when our nation is over $17 trillion in debt.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has also been pushing more extensive reform. The Conference Accountability Act of 2013 would prohibit agencies from spending more than $500,000 on any single conference and would require detailed reporting on all conference spending to be publicly posted on agency websites.
The bill was slated to be voted upon by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee June 25 until it was pulled to allow OMB to comment on how it would affect existing regulations.