by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 17, 2014
On Jan. 14, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on "Examining Conference and Travel Spending Across the Federal Government," and M&C listened in, following the no-holds-barred proceedings, which at times were downright contentious.

The committee, led by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), heard testimony on the steps being taken to cut government meetings spending from Beth Cobert, deputy director of management for the Office of Management and Budget; Dan Tangherlini, administrator of the General Services Administration; and inspectors general for the Department of Justice, the General Services Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.

The witnesses faced tough questions on agency audit findings, the accuracy of their data, what measures were in place that would drive employee compliance and whether legislation would be needed to force a change in action. Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-Okla.), repeatedly asked whether the scrutiny on conference spending would continue after the media spotlight had faded. "In 10 years' time, with a new administration, is there a provision of law that will prevent them from having another blow-out conference costing millions of dollars?" he asked Tangherlini of the GSA, referring to a GSA conference held in Las Vegas in 2010, at a cost of $822,000.

According to Cobert of the OMB, agencies reduced travel costs by $3 billion in 2013, compared with 2010 levels. She singled out several agencies that had achieved significant savings, including the Department of the Treasury ($181 million)  and the Department of the Interior ($99 million). Cobert said her department would be aggressively pursuing the use of webcasts and videoconferencing, but only when they proved to be good, effective alternatives to a physical event.

The three inspectors general detailed a litany of issues in their respective agencies, discovered in the audit processes, that reflected a complete lack of management over meetings or evidence of an enforced travel policy. Brian Miller, inspector general for the GSA, said his review found conference contracts signed without authority to do so and the use of outside event planners without contracts.

Russell George, the inspector general for tax administration with the IRS, said his audit of one 2012 conference held by that agency in Anaheim, Calif., discovered the use of two third-party planners not under contract, who were paid more than $133,000 in hotel commissions. "Instead of negotiating a lower room rate, they negotiated for suite upgrades and complementary drinks," said George.

The inspector general for the DOJ, Michael E. Horowitz, testified that an audit of the 10 most expensive conferences held by that department between October 2004 and September 2006, which had a cumulative cost of $6.2 million, revealed that three had exceeded $1 million in spend. Of the $6.2 million, 71 percent went to pay for external event planning, F&B and A/V services. A second audit in 2011 revealed a continued and pervasive lack of meetings oversight. "Our report found that the DOJ components spent $600,000 to hire 'training and technical assistance providers' as conference event planners for five conferences, without demonstrating that these firms offered the most cost-effective, logistical event-planning services," he told the committee.

Repeatedly, committee members drilled the three inspectors general on what needed to be done to force compliance, to ensure there would be no back-sliding on conference and travel spend by federal agencies in years to come. And, if legislation was the answer, what did they suggest be included.

"There are conferences, and then there are conferences. What we are talking about is the excess of meetings for federal employees," said Sen. Coburn. "If the DOJ wanted to spend $150 million in conferences, is there anything to keep them from doing it? There are no consequences for not following policy. There is not a business in the world that does not look at what it is spending on conferences to see if they are getting value."