Feds could have new restrictions on attending conferences

New proposed ethics rules for federal employees aim to put the kibosh on their attendance at lobbyist-sponsored social events such as cocktail parties and movie screenings, but there is concern that the rules also may hamper federal employee attendance at a broader range of events, such as industry trade shows.

Currently, federal employees must comply with a Office of Government Ethics gift ban that prohibits accepting gifts valued over $20 from lobbyists, with limited exceptions. Additionally, political appointees are required to comply with a gift ban from lobbyists under an executive order from President Barack Obama in 2009.


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The ethics office published a new proposed rule in the Federal Register on Sept. 13 that limits the exceptions from the gift ban. Since then, policy observers have been trying to figure out just exactly what it means.

Specifically, the rule further restricts gifts to federal employees when those gifts take the form of free registration and attendance, along with food and drink, at “widely-attended gatherings.”

“The Office of Government Ethics has indeed become concerned that some of the exceptions may have been used on occasion to permit gifts, such as attendance at certain events, where the nexus to the purpose of the exception is attenuated at best,” the proposal states.

On the other hand, the ethics office also made clear in the proposal that the new restrictions are not meant to curtail federal attendance at educational and professional development events.

Industry groups have been buzzing with discussions about the new language, while emphasizing that the full impact is not yet clear.

Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, said the goal of the new wording seems to be to shut the door on federal employee attendance at any purely social gathering sponsored by a lobbying organization.

At the same time, there are industry events that constitute “gray areas” in which federal attendance may or may not be affected by the new rules, he added. The effect may depend on how the sponsoring organization is constituted, and each organization is a little different in that regard, Chvotkin said.

Nonetheless, there is widespread concern about the new proposed rule, he added.

“It is generating a lot of discussion and concern for what it might imply. It could chill government and industry collaboration and communication,” Chvotkin said. He said the Professional Services Council was still analyzing whether the rule would impact its activities.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, which owns and produces one of the world’s largest large technology trade shows, the new rules “would severely limit the ability of federal government employees to attend events sponsored by industry trade groups,” according to a Sept. 20 news release from the association.

“The government plays an important role in facilitating and even helping host these events as they attract visitors from all over the world, including important government officials from other countries,” Gary Shapiro, CEA president, said in the release. “As we increasingly restrict the ability of government employees to participate in these events we hurt smaller U.S. companies that rely on trade shows to display their wares. If we want to increase our exports, we need government to view these events as part of our national strategy to encourage jobs and exports.”



About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Mon, Sep 26, 2011

As a federal employee working below middle management, I am lucky if I get to attend one conference every two years. When the opportunity came up to attend an educational conference in Vegas last month, I ended up paying out of my own pocket, taking annual leave for the week. All because our division had "hit it's travel ceiling" (read: even if we had the money to send you we cannot because we have spent up to our travel limit for the year) It galls me to see multiple trips to D.C. arranged on a moment's notice for certain officials, but 'regular' employees are not allowed to attend educational offerings unless on their own time. Nothing but cheap webinars in our futures...

Fri, Sep 23, 2011

As a Fed employee, I see a some groups within my organization do a lot of trips for conferences and supposed education - far too mnay to indicate that they are doing any good. These people are away from their office so much that the real work gets put off. They were hired to actually provide something to our organization - not running around the country. For the writer attending 100's of these things, I think his position should be cut from the Government payroll because the last thing the taxpayers need is money being spent on someone not geting anything done because they supposedly out learning how to do their job. If you need more than a couple of weeks of workshops and seminars a year then you obviously are not qualified to do your office job and should be terminated. Same applies to Congress. It is no wonder why the Government is so inefficient.

Thu, Sep 22, 2011 mandinka

Hard working and underpaid???? Thank you AFL CIO I hope you realzie that drugs are illegal

Thu, Sep 22, 2011 Paul

Even before this some issues seemed silly. Our agency runs a conference every year for the DoD and have always had one day where the vendors provide a basic box lunch (worth maybe $5) to ALL attendees. A few years ago, we were told that if we accepted the lunch we had to take it out of our per diem so that it didn't look like a gift. It sometimes seems like they forget the spirit of the law.

Thu, Sep 22, 2011

MOST government employees are hard working honest and under paid. BUT - The country is broke. SOME conferences need to be evaluated. I have been to conferences where excellent classes were provided, unfortunately many people took advantage of the location and did NOT attend. Sad! What a waste of dollars. I am retired now and hope this is not still happening.

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