Tomorrow the Senate is expected to vote on the Coburn amendment (#2606) limiting spending on government conferences. Summary and background here.
Dr. Coburn believes the problem with conference spending is Congress, not the GSA or any other agency. Congress has fostered a spring-break mentality at agencies by looking the other way. Too often members would rather grow government than shrink government, particularly if a parochial interest is at stake. This amendment will send a long-overdue signal that Congress is listening to the American people and taking its oversight responsibilities seriously.
Dr. Coburn’s efforts to address conference spending:
• “For the Farmers or For the Fun?” – 2008 USDA report: USDA tripled conference expenditures since 2000, to $19.4 million in 2006. USDA saw a 191 percent increase in conference spending since 2000.
• “Party at the DOJ” – 2010 Department of Interior IG report: found DOI could save more than $20 million in travel costs each year by utilizing teleconferencing technology. According to the report, the Department owns $5 million worth of such equipment, but fails to fully use it, meanwhile spending millions on travel.
• “Justice Denied” – 2008 DOJ report: spent more than $312 million over 7 years on conferences. Includes $4 Meatballs, Congressional Training Sessions in Hawaii, and a Gang Prevention Event at a Palm Springs, Waldorf-Astoria Resort.
• 2008 report on HIV/AIDS conference cost taxpayers half a million dollars ($473,095), to send federal employees to Mexico.
Summary of the Coburn amendment:
Provides a first step in comprehensive conference spending and transparency reform by scaling back overall conference spending, establishing attendance limitations to protect from excessive and unnecessary travel, and require full online transparency of all conference spending. These reforms could save more than $65 million every year.
Establishes a basic set of requirements for conference spending, including the following:
• Reduces the amount an agency can spend on conferences to 80 percent of the amount spent in 2010.
• Caps amount that can be spent on a single conference at $500,000 (unless the agency is the primary sponsor).
• Allows non-federal foundations and sources to provide financial support for a conference, but requires a listing of such sponsors and a certification that there is no conflict of interest resulting from support received from each.
• Prohibits sponsoring more than one conference per year per organization.
• Limits to 50 the number of employees from a single agency traveling to an international conference.
Requires a quarterly summary posted on the agency’s website of each conference supported or attended by an agency in the preceding 3 months, including:
• An explanation how the conference advanced the mission of the agency;
• Total cost of attendance and support for the conference;
• Primary sponsor of the conference;
• Location of the conference;
• A justification of the location including cost efficiency of the location;
• The dates; and
• The number and a listing by title of agency and non-federal employees whose attendance at the conference was paid for by the agency.