by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 01, 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." M&C listened in on 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 the inspectors general for the Department of Justice, the General Services Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.
The witnesses faced tough questions on 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 changes in the future. 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, referring to a GSA conference held in Las Vegas in 2010 at a cost of $822,000.

According to Cobert of the OMB, various government departments 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).

The three inspectors general -- Brian Miller of the GSA, Russell George with the IRS and the DOJ's Michael E. Horowitz -- detailed a litany of issues in their agencies, discovered in audit processes, that seemingly reflected a lack of adequate management over meetings. For example, Brian Miller said his review found that conference contracts had been signed without the proper authority and the agency was using third-party event planners without first signing them to contracts.

Committee members repeatedly grilled the three inspectors general on what was needed to force compliance and to ensure there would be no backsliding on conference and travel spend by federal agencies in years to come. The three men also were asked what should be included if legislation is the answer.

"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."