Federal employee bonuses under fire

Lawmakers seek to limit bonuses governmentwide, a concern that gained prominence in Congress's examination of GSA spending.

Two senators intend to create a way to “claw back” a federal employee’s bonus if the inspector general issues an adverse decision about the employee in the same year, according to a new bill.

Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introduced the Stop Wasteful Federal Bonuses and Conferences Act (S. 3481) Aug. 2, as they target the General Services Administration’s wasteful spending that has come to light in recent months.

In her investigation, McCaskill found GSA paid more than $1 million in bonuses to employees who were under an investigation for wrongdoing and misconduct.

“We’re aiming to make sure that agency leaders can’t just shrug off responsibility for wrongdoing, and to see that employees who betray the public’s trust by wasting taxpayer dollars are punished, not rewarded for bad behavior,” McCaskill said.

Also under the bill, agency officials would be barred for two years from giving bonuses to employees whose conduct has been determined by an IG to have resulted in fraud, waste, or abuse of taxpayer dollars or a violation of contracting law.

Beyond bonuses, agencies would have to get approval by an agency head or a chief management officer to hold a conference costing more than $200,000. And Congress would have to know about conference spending on an annual basis.

The bill comes out as GSA continues to take fire on Capitol Hill for its past conference spending and its bonuses. On Aug. 1, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing where members questioned a GSA official about conferences and bonuses. Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) and others cited a recent report from WUSA Channel 9 that found GSA awarded roughly 10 percent of the bonuses federal employees received last year. GSA has only about 1 percent of the government's employees. In fiscal 2011, GSA handed out $44 million in employee bonuses across the agency.

Cynthia Metzler, chief administrative services officer at GSA, told the committee that Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini is doing a top-down review of GSA’s operations, including employee bonuses. Tangherlini has already canceled most employee bonuses.

Along with bonuses, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee’s Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee, asked Metzler about the SmartPay Training Conference in Nashville that was going on the same day as the hearing.

She emphasized that Tangherlini now requires GSA officials to justify the need for conferences, including the one Denham asked about, as part of his internal assessment.

She said in testimony that conferences require a business justification and a budget. She and the head of the office pursuing the conference have to approve it. For those conferences with anticipated costs over $100,000, the deputy administrator must also approve the conference. So far, GSA has canceled 37 conferences.

GSA officials have faced lawmakers numerous times since April about conference spending, particularly the lavish conference in Las Vegas in 2010.

As for McCaskill and Ayotte’s bill, it was referred to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for further consideration.

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