Federal agencies slash travel expenses

Friday , February 28, 2014 - 12:23 PM

Lisa Rein, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Federal agencies have slashed spending on travel and conferences in the aftermath of several high-profile abuses, but some lawmakers said Tuesday the government must be careful not to go overboard by restricting productive gatherings that improve government services.

At a Senate hearing, top Obama administration officials and three inspectors general who have revealed excesses at the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the General Services Administration described a new culture of restraint, triggered by both bad publicity and sharp spending cuts.

“At some level, you can’t legislate common sense,” Dan Tangherlini, GSA administrator, told the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs two years after revelations that top agency officials held a junket for 300 employees off the Las Vegas strip. “We needed a solid dose of it. We have that now.”

But the $1.1 trillion funding bill congressional negotiators unveiled Monday does try to put some restrictions into law, at least for the rest of the fiscal year. Agencies would have to submit reports to their inspector general on any conference that costs more than $100,000 and include the number of participants, the purpose and a detailed breakdown of food and other costs.

Inspectors general also would need to be informed of conferences that cost more than $20,000. Agencies could not send more than 50 people to an international conference, unless it involves law-enforcement personnel.

Rules put in place by the Office of Management and Budget have resulted in sharply curtailed travel and conference spending, more oversight over what money is spent and increased use of technology to train employees.

The question for some lawmakers is how to ensure that the austerity measures won’t fade with a new presidential administration. At the same time, several senators said they worry that the meaningful business of government could be stymied by travel restrictions.

“It’s too easy to sit there and pound on one agency because they had an exorbitant conference at the expense of other agencies that are doing their travel right,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., explaining that federal employees need to travel routinely to his state to meet with farmers about subsidies and other programs.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the committee’s ranking member, is sponsoring permanent legislation that would further restrict travel and conferences.

“There’s a spotlight right now,” Coburn said. “Everybody’s focusing on it. That isn’t going to be the case five years from now. It’s got to be through forced transparency.”

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