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.

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