Federal lawmakers floated a new, slightly less restrictive bill concerning government meetings, while the U.S. General Services Administration considers reducing travel per diems for its employees.
The bill, H.R. 4631: Government Spending Accountability Act of 2012, was passed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, but has yet to make it to the floor of the House of Representatives or Senate for a vote. It is the latest piece of legislation in response to the GSA’s overspending and mismanagement of its Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas in 2010.
The proposal, introduced by Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., does not impose the same harsh restrictions as earlier amendments attached to separate bills in the House and Senate that capped the number of government agency employees that can attend an international conference, the total meeting spend at $500,000, as well as travel budgets at 80 percent of 2010 levels. It also limited the number of outside meetings a government employee could attend. The new bill had no limits on attending outside meetings; however, it says travel budgets must be reduced to 70 percent of 2010 levels.
It’s a slight improvement in that it doesn’t place restrictions on attending outside conferences, but it is still unacceptable, says Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy at the U.S. Travel Association, Washington, D.C. The bill includes significant budget cuts and doesn’t provide any exemptions for mission-critical travel, he adds. “Taking a scalpel approach is much more prudent than taking a sledgehammer approach to federal travel budgets,” says Hansen. In addition, the proposal doesn’t allow for a waiver of the $500,000 limitation on conference spending. He doesn’t think the bill will get through the Senate, even if it does gain approval in the House. There hasn’t been any movement on either of the earlier amendments. Any action is still a long way away, says Hansen, if anything happens at all.
“It largely continues to be a political issue,” says Hansen. “The provisions of the Walsh bill and the provisions of the Data Act and postal reform bill are all duplicative of what the Obama administration has already done.”
In May, the White House issued guidance for federal agencies to follow when producing meetings. Like the bills, it calls for travel budgets to be slashed 30 percent from 2010 levels and says meeting costs have to be under $500,000. Unlike the bills, agencies can apply for a waiver to produce a meeting costing more than $500,000 and can get exemptions for mission-critical travel. Also, there is no timeline for the guidance.
“I think the Obama administration took a much more measured approach,” says Hansen. “The real key will be how federal agencies decide to implement the policy.” For example, mission-critical travel can be set aside from the budget cuts. “That allows federal agencies to take a hard look at their travel budgets to figure out where they need to cut and where they need to maintain travel,” adds Hansen. That’s an important distinction, he says. “The Obama administration’s actions probably won’t be as Draconian as some of the proposals in Congress.”
On a different front, the U.S. Travel Association and the American Hotel and Lodging Association expressed concerned over the possibility that the GSA might reduce travel per diems by up to 30 percent. “This could have significant and long-lasting economic impacts on government and private sector business travel, and harm the nation's tentative economic recovery,” states Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel. Representatives from U.S. Travel and AHLA are scheduled to meet with GSA officials to learn more about the likelihood of this proposal and express their reservations.