WASHINGTON – Federal spending on conferences and agency travel has been slashed by $3 billion over 2010 levels as a result of reforms instituted in the wake of several extravagant events that cost taxpayers millions of dollars and featured entertainment like mind-readers and parody videos.
Beth F. Cobert, deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, told members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that the White House has sought to save federal revenues in recent years by reducing administrative costs and strengthening controls around conference activities – some of which were widely reported to have gotten out of hand.
“Over the last several years, this administration has reduced conference spending in the federal government by rethinking how and why conferences are conducted as well as by increasing our use of technology such as video-conferencing and webinars in order to reduce travel costs,” Cobert said.
The Obama administration adopted reforms as a result of embarrassing incidents of wasteful spending at federal government-sponsored conferences. The Internal Revenue Service spent $4.1 million on a 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., with “questionable expenses” comprising much of the budget, according to a report by the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration. The IRS used event planners instead of IRS employees or contractors to set up the conference, giving no incentive to get lower rates and leaving the government to pay $135 per night for all rooms. Instead of working for favorable room rates, both event planners got $66,500 in commission from the hotels, according to the audit.
Other expenses included more than $135,000 on outside speakers – including a $17,000 fee for a speaker who created paintings on stage to make his point that one must free “the thought process to find creative solutions to challenges.”
Also in 2010, the General Services Administration spent $822,000 on a conference in Las Vegas that featured a clown, a mind reader and a $31,208 reception.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member, said both Congress and the White House suffered a “significant amount of embarrassment” over the excesses uncovered at the IRS and GSA conferences and others.
And while some “positive steps” have been taken to address the problem, Coburn said wasteful spending on conferences and travel continues.
“The Department of Education had a conference just this last month that cost almost a million dollars,” Coburn said. “Supposedly the department can’t fund Head Start because of sequestration but can throw a million dollar party in Las Vegas.”
Coburn said he asked department officials to cancel the event but they refused.
Cobert asserted that conferences “can and do produce important results.”
“Convening federal employees and external stakeholders at a single location sometimes can be the most efficient and cost-effective means for carrying out government-sponsored activities,” Cobert said. “Examples include presentation of scientific findings, oversight boards or advisory group meetings and standards-setting committees. Several agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, rely on such conferences with industry and academic colleagues to drive innovation and ensure continued advancement in related fields.”
At the same time, Cobert said, conference-related spending, as well as all administrative spending, “must be managed in a responsible way.” The Obama administration has taken several steps to ensure effective spending management, including requiring agencies to conduct thorough reviews of their conference-related activities and expenditures.
“Our efforts are paying off,” Cobert said. “In FY 2013, agencies reduced travel costs by $3 billion compared to FY 2010 levels. While we are happy to see costs reduced, we will continue our efforts to maintain efficient spending. Agencies will continue to hold their travel spending to 30 percent below FY 2010 levels – unless the agency can show that certain reductions would undermine critical government functions such as national security, international diplomacy, health and safety, law enforcement, and site visits for oversight or investigatory purposes. To maintain this lower level of spending, agencies are evaluating and rethinking how they conduct conferences that have resulted in several innovative collaborations.”
Cobert was backed up by Daniel M. Tangherlini, administrator of the General Services Administration, one of the agencies tainted by the conference spending scandals, who said his agency now maintains “rigorous internal policies, provides tools to other agencies to help them make more informed travel and conference spending decisions and is working on broader reforms and programs that would result in greater savings long-term.”
“Travel can only be approved when all other alternatives, including video-conferencing, teleconferencing, and webinars have been considered,” Tangherlini said. “Additionally, travel must be for work related to GSA’s essential mission, such as building inspections. To ensure all travel requests received appropriate review, GSA has instituted policies that limit the use of blanket authorizations and require that travel is authorized in advance on a trip- by-trip basis.”
Any proposal for a conference must be accompanied by a detailed justification, a proposed budget, and review and approval from multiple divisions, Tangherlini said.
“In line with administration policies, when the proposed cost of a conference is more than $100,000, the Deputy Administrator must approve it,” he said. “Conferences over $500,000 are prohibited unless I approve them and document the justification for why they must be held. Even attendance at a conference requires multiple layers of approval. Employees must submit for approval a justification for their attendance and an estimate of their expenses.”
Regardless, Coburn expressed concern that agencies may eventually “slip back in to their old habits and old way of doing things. My fear is it will repeat itself.”
The lawmaker said he will continue to pitch his legislation, the Conference Accountability Act of 2013, which maintains that no agency can spend more than $500,000 on a conference or send more than 50 employees to an international conference.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee chairman, said he was pleased with the actions taken to address cost issues but added that the panel will continue to “look into every nook and cranny in federal spending” to find some savings.
“In this time of deep federal deficits and challenging economic times, the people we work for, the taxpayers, expect us to be good stewards of their hard-earned money,” he said.