Government Conference Spending Still Under Scrutiny

By: Chris Vest

Congress is still watching federal-employee conference attendance.

It's been a year and a half since the General Services Administration (GSA) first came under fire for lavish spending on a Las Vegas conference, but the repercussions continue to be felt in the meetings industry and on Capitol Hill.

The GSA scandal, first revealed in a March 2012 GSA inspector general's report, sparked outrage in Congress and led to several legislative proposals to crack down on wasteful government spending. These earliest bills would have essentially ended government employee attendance at all meetings and conferences, even those considered mission-related for federal agencies. While the bills passed both chambers, they were attached to two different legislative vehicles that were never reconciled.

ASAE and other associations actively opposed these bills, as well as language offered earlier this year as a last-minute amendment to the FY13 continuing resolution that would have prohibited federal agencies from sending more than 25 employees to any meeting or conference in the country.

New reports of wasteful conference spending by the IRS have kept the issue simmering on Capitol Hill. Among the bills still under consideration are proposals to force agencies to cut their travel budgets in half over the next four years and use video conferencing for staff training and routine meetings; restrict all conference spending by the IRS until the agency implements all of the recommendations in a Treasury inspector general's report; and require agencies to limit conference spending and post quarterly reports online detailing travel expenses.

Associations that have felt the financial impact of reduced government attendance at their meetings do not condone wasteful spending but wish to preserve a necessary dialogue with the agencies that regulate and contribute to knowledge-sharing in their fields.

Congress's continuing scrutiny of conference spending suggests this will remain a top advocacy issue for associations through the end of this session.

Chris Vest, CAE, is director of public policy at ASAE. Email: [email protected]

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Under Scrutiny"]