Mandating use of federal charge cards: Good luck

The Travel and Transportation Reform Act of 1997 (H.R. 930) introduced this year and passed by the House authorizes the General Services Administration to require federal employees and contractors who travel on government business to use federal travel charge cards to pay all expenses related to official government work unless they receive an exemption from GSA. Members of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee where this legislation originated want to encourage use of charge cards because they believe this will save money. And it may do that the federal government spends $7.6 billion each year on travel. Greater use of the travel card would generate information that agency bean counters could use to scrutinize agency travel expenses and identify potential savings.

Notwithstanding the logic behind this proposal there are a few problems. For example some law enforcement personnel do not want to use charge cards because such cards could reveal a person's identity or whereabouts.

I also have a problem with the fact that H.R. 930 mandates the use of a travel charge card. What if a traveler eats dinner at a restaurant that does not accept charge cards? How will the government know whether a traveler is telling the truth when he claims that he could not charge certain expenses?

Unfortunately this is not the only problem I foresee. GSA plans to issue rules that would permit card issuers to charge late fees. Employee groups are concerned that delays in the government's reimbursement of travel expenses could result in employees having to pay late fees out of pocket. You can bet your house that would happen.

But GSA says not to worry. This will serve as an incentive for agencies to process vouchers promptly. Get serious GSA. Agencies are not going to process vouchers any differently than they do now.

I anticipate yet another problem: To comply with privacy legislation the bill amends (nullifies is a more accurate term) the Right to Privacy Act of 1978 to permit government officials access to all information related to the use of charge cards without regard to the protection the privacy law used to provide. The alleged purpose of permitting such broad access is to ensure that all card charges are legitimate.

When traveling on government business a portion of the per diem is for the purchase of personal items. But if an employee has to charge these purchases on a charge card does he really want some of these personal items to appear on the bill the agency ultimately receives? I doubt it.

To make it worse agencies would be authorized to recover inappropriate expenditures by salary withholdings. The bill does limit the amount that can be deducted from an employee's salary to 15 percent of his net pay for that pay period. A greater percentage may be deducted with the employee's consent.

GSA has up to five years to implement this legislation. The agency will need it. Stay tuned.

—Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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