An amendment that would have prevented government agencies from sending more than 25 employees to a conference was nixed.
Association professionals breathed a huge sigh of relief this spring when the Senate passed a short-term spending bill to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year and, in the process, dropped a troublesome amendment that would have limited the number of federal employees who could attend any meeting or conference in the United States.
The amendment, sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), was written in response to reports of excessive conference spending in recent years by the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs but would have arbitrarily restricted federal agencies from sending more than 25 employees to a conference.
While no one is defending wasteful spending of taxpayer money, the need for Congress to legislate in this area was obviated by a directive to all federal agencies issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) shortly after the GSA scandal broke last spring. The memo directed all agencies to cut travel budgets by 30 percent from FY2010 levels and cap spending on government-sponsored conferences at $500,000. It also required agencies to publicly disclose conference expenses above $100,000 and instituted a senior-level review of requests to attend meetings.
With these rules in place, OMB testified at a congressional hearing that travel spending by the federal government has dropped by $2 billion and agencies have adopted more cost-effective practices for planning conferences, including use of government-owned meeting space whenever possible.
Associations and other private-sector interests can live with the latest OMB rules because they don't seek to keep federal employees from attending the conferences that are most relevant to their agency's function, nor do they put a limit on the number of employees an agency can send to a meeting.
Unfortunately, the fact that this issue continues to percolate means that the association community's role in educating Congress about the value of face-to-face meetings is not over.
Chris Vest is director of public policy at ASAE. Email: [email protected]