More senators take aim at conference spending

Several senators are advocating for detailed quarterly reports on agencies’ conferences, including how the events advanced the agency’s mission.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has proposed an amendment to the 21st Century Postal Service Act (S. 1798) intended to make agencies open up about how much money they spend on conferences in a year. Although he's already said that the Senate won't consider the amendment, other senators are working on other efforts to curb spending abuses.

Coburn's amendment would require thorough reports on conferences. Quarterly, agency officials would have to post on their website a report on each conference the agency paid money to go to during the previous quarter of the year. The report would include itemized expenses, such as travel and costs for scouting the conference location, and how many federal employees it paid for to attend.

Any presentation made by any agency employee at a conference, speech, slide presentation or recording of the conference would have to be online too.

An agency could not spend more than $500,000 to pay for single conference.

In a speech on the Senate floor April 19, Coburn said the uproar over the General Services Administration’s $822,000 Western Regions Conference in October 2010 brought conference spending to national attention. But he said it’s really Congress’ fault for letting the spending continue for so many years. He said he has introduced similar reform amendments on conference spending throughout the years, but they have been rejected or not passed.

“We have this problem today, but not because of the GSA, because of ourselves. Because we refused to do the hard work of passing requirements that hold federal agencies accountable,” he said in his speech.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) announced on April 18 she will introduce the Accountability in Government Act. The bill would put agencies under tough scrutiny when hosting conferences. A senior agency official, such as the chief management officer, would have to give approval for any conference costing more than $200,000.

For an agency to sponsor an event, officials would have to notify Congress annually with detailed information on the conferences. The bill has not been officially introduced.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

Reader comments

Mon, Apr 23, 2012

More than not doing their jobs, the Senators and Congressmen should "take aim" at their OWN "spending" -- like a staff of 35, franking privileges, free medical (through the use [clogging up] of the military facilities, free parking, and on and on it goes. Hypocrites!

Sat, Apr 21, 2012

Government staff desperately need skills and knowledge and networking gained at these events. It is the cost of doing business! And no, I am NOT a government employee but a long time resident of the beltway. Making every SESer afraid to approve conferences for her staff is going to do awful things to the government workforce. Investigate and take appropriate action if GSA did something wrong but don't make this a witch hunt and don't make the honest, hardworking folks...or the tax payers ultimately pay.

Fri, Apr 20, 2012 RayW

There are conferences and then there are conferences. I like to attend an annual one that takes place in what some folks would consider boondoggle spots, Disneyland, Disney World, Baltimore, Salt Lake City, and occasionally other spots. There is something to be said about meeting others in your field, talking over issues in a free form environment, and getting new information.

The last one I was at in Disneyland I got 4 hours at Disneyland on the last day of a three and a half day conference, I was at the conference from 7 in the morning until 5-8 at night. While talking to one vendor trying to find a solution to a problem that was creating a lot of condemned hardware items another attendee suggested a solution. For less than the cost of one item, we are now returning to service items that would have been condemned. This would not have happened in the traditional "call vendor, talk on phone" that we are suppose to do to save congress a few dollars for their junkets and pet projects. The one last year in Baltimore resulted in a new piece of test equipment (well, the combination of working with the vendor on the phone, email, and in person at three separate conferences) that solved one of our customers test issues, but without the initial conference contact we would have never thought that vendor was a solution.

This year we are being cut back on conference funding, so I wonder what problems will languish because of the lack of interaction among a variety of folks? The tar brush of politics is very non-discriminating when it comes to the self-righteous "we are doing something for the sheeple" actions of congress. Too bad they can not focus on specific issues instead of "tossing de baby out with de bathwater".

Fri, Apr 20, 2012 We Peons NC

It is my understanding that government travel is also - one of the biggest waste. Many times senior Government Employees use it as a Vacation including first class, overseas, with family too. It really needs to stop…. but the higher up take care of each other and then reward those who take care of them with “hush money”..... Money (and PERKS) really is the “Root-of-all-Evil” and Government Waste & Abuse. By-the-way: We peons had their previous year’s small incentive awards cut in half for 2012, even as all this is going on....

Fri, Apr 20, 2012 Dave

I suspect by the time all is said and done, the Government will have spent about $60M for a solution to overreact to an $800,000 problem that has already been addressed.

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