House tightens controls on conference spending

The House passed a transparency bill unanimously April 25 that would also reduce spending on conferences, a reaction to overspending on a General Services Administration conference.

Under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (H.R. 2146), agencies would have to cut their conference spending budgets by 20 percent compared to 2010's amounts. And an agency could only spend as much as $500,000 in a single conference.

The DATA Act, which also would create more exacting rules for reporting spending data online, digs deep into agencies’ spending too.

It would require a quarterly summary posted on the agency’s website of each conference supported or attended by its employees in the preceding 3 months.

Officials would have to share the date of the conference, its total cost of attendance and support for the conference, and its primary sponsor. Officials would need to name the location of an event and a justification for its location, including how it saved money to go there, as well as the itemized costs for scouting and selecting the location.

Officials would have to report on the number and a listing by title of agency and private-sector employees that the agency paid to attend. They would need to show how holding a conference benefited the agency rather than conducting a teleconference.

Lawmakers added the language in the DATA Act after the GSA inspector general released a report in April that said GSA officials spent $822,000 in 2010 on the Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas. The conference was for 300 GSA employees.

“It’s clear from our investigation into GSA’s lavish conference spending that accountability and increased transparency is needed,” said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Because of the IG report, several senior GSA officials, including its administrator Martha Johnson, resigned or were fired. Others were put on administrative leave. The next week, Johnson and other officials were called to testify at four congressional committees over three days. 

Days afterward, several members of the House and Senate introduced bills to reign in spending on these types of events.

Senators also agreed April 24 to include language in the 21st Century Postal Service Act (S. 1789) that would limit agencies’ spending on conferences. The amendment includes much of the same language as the DATA Act.

“We have seen scandal after scandal because Congress has failed to do oversight. The purpose of oversight is to prevent scandals, not respond to scandals,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who proposed the amendment.

Despite the conference spending, the DATA Act largely focuses on putting grant and contract dollar amounts on a single web portal. The bill would incorporate elements of the Office of Management and Budget’s USASpending.gov website and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s spending tracking website Recovery.gov into a new online database. It would also set standards for reporting spending data—including grants, contracts, loans and internal expenses—by agencies and recipients. It capitalizes on the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.

“Under the administration’s implementation and the RAT Board’s oversight, the Recovery Act has had historically low levels of waste, fraud, and abuse,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

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