GSA's conference reforms bear fruit
Danny Werfel of OMB and Cynthia Metzler of GSA testify before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (Oversight Committee photo)
Cynthia Metzler, chief administrative services officer at the General Services Administration, came before a congressional committee Feb. 27—the second time in six months—to talk about conference and travel spending at GSA. This time, she could share with lawmakers the improvements GSA has made since spending scandal that surfaced in April 2012.
"GSA has instituted rigorous new controls and oversight to ensure that all proposed travel and conference expenses are cost effective, serve legitimate mission needs, and have appropriate levels of review," according to her testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service, and the Census.
Dan Tangherlini, GSA's acting administrator since 2012, changed agency leaders and did a top-down review of GSA's operations.
Since then, Metzler said, GSA has reformed its travel policies to reflect Tangherlini's mission of rooting out wasteful spending. "GSA has put in place strict internal travel and conference policies to reduce costs, provide strong oversight, and ensure that travel only occurs when necessary," she said.
GSA has required the deputy administrator to give approval when the proposed cost of a conference is more than $100,000. If a conference is more than $500,000, the acting administrator must approve it and document the justification for it. GSA has also limited its use of blanket authorizations, and is looking at requests on a trip-by-trip basis.
The policies are similar to provisions in the Government Spending Accountability Act (H.R. 313), and reform bill introduced by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) on Jan. 18. H.R. 313 would also force agencies to institute spending limits and set up transparency requirements for conference and travel expenditures. Several similar bills were introduced in the House and Senate last Congress.
Metzler told the subcommittee that through fiscal 2012 alone, GSA's policies have helped save more than $28 million in travel and transportation costs.
Office of Management and Budget Controller Danny Werfel, who testified with Metzler, said OMB has required agencies to conduct thorough reviews of their conference spending and related costs.
In 2012, two months after GSA's inspector general released a report saying agency officials spent $822,000 on a Las Vegas conference, OMB released a memo ordering agencies to reduce conference spending in fiscal 2013 by 30 percent compared to fiscal 2010 expenditures.
He said the policies of oversight and reviews have led agencies to reduce travel expenses in fiscal 2012 by roughly $2 billion compared to fiscal 2010. Agencies have turned to webinars, teleconferences and video-conferences to conduct business they once may have traveled to do in person.
Yet, the subcommittee also heard from one House member who asked an important philosophical question.
Would the American people be better served if Congress worked without in-person interactions, even voting online?
"It could save hundreds of expensive trips each week to do that, but don't you think the country would be worse for it?" Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) asked.
A scientist before being elected to Congress, Holt said the scientific community works much better when members are able to get together.
"Weakening collaboration is not wise," he told the subcommittee. At least for the scientific community, "these instances are not wasteful spending, but instead are examples of federal investments in innovation and economic development."