Efforts to limit feds' conference attendance meet opposition

Industry associations worry that legislation designed to restrict the ability of federal employees to attend conferences would do more harm than good.

More than 800 organizations are up in arms about new proposed legislative language that restricts federal employees from attending conferences, insisting it would hurt the dialog between government and private industry. However, the bills that contain the measures are moving closer to becoming law.

In a May 4 letter to Congress, the American Society of Association Executives and more than 800 associations urged lawmakers to consider revisions to amendments that limit government employees from attending meetings and conferences organized by associations, nonprofits and other industry groups. These amendments were included in the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act and the 21st Century Postal Service Act. The DATA act was passed April 25 by the House, and the other bill was passed the same day by the Senate.

ASAE said it supports Congress’ effort to promote greater transparency and accountability in spending by limiting government-sponsored conferences and travel expenses for federal employees. However, the language would also exclude federal employees’ participation in non-governmental meetings and conferences as well, the letter stated.

“The dialog that takes place at these meetings between government and the private sector is essential to the development of informed policymaking that facilitates economic growth and job creation,” the letter stated. “The dangers of government operating in a vacuum – with fewer opportunities to learn and exchange information with private industries in a conference or meeting setting – are too great to ignore.”

The amendments also prohibit agencies from spending money on more than one conference sponsored or organized by an organization during any fiscal year, unless the agency is the primary sponsor and organizer of the event. ASEA and the other associations also opposed the broad definition of “conference” meaning “every conference held by an association, corporation or virtually any other non-governmental organization,” and suggested revising the definition to a meeting sponsored by one or more agencies.

Under these amendments, agencies are required to post online a report on each conference for which the agency paid travel expenses and information  including related expenses, who organized the event, and where it was held. If the organizer is a federal agency, the agency would have to justify the location of the event.

ASEA said the language in the amendments could be easily changed to allow federal employees to attend educational events held by nongovernmental organizations.

This is not the first time lawmakers have taken steps to prevent federal employees from attending specific gatherings. In September 2011, the Office of Government Ethics proposed a rule that would prevent feds from attending lobbyist-sponsored social events such as cocktail parties and movie screenings.
 

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