The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform recently passed as amended the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2012 (H.R. 4631). H.R. 4631 includes changes that would place fewer restrictions on federal employee travel to conferences than language in separate bills passed in April by the House and Senate. Of particular note, H.R. 4631 does not include a restriction prohibiting federal employees from attending more than one conference per year per outside organization included in the previous bills. The restrictions by Congress are intended to address the controversy in which General Services Administration (GSA) officials organized a conference in Las Vegas for agency employees which included excessive and wasteful spending.
The Full Story:
On June 27, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform passed by voice vote the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2012 (H.R. 4631) as amended. The legislation was introduced on April 25 by Representative Joe Walsh (R-IL) who is a member of the Committee. As introduced, H.R. 4631 would have required at least quarterly itemized reports by federal agency heads on conferences or meetings occurring at non-federal government locations and are attended by 50 or more agency employees or have a total cost of $100,000 or more.
During mark-up by the Committee of H.R. 4631, Representative Walsh offered an amendment in the nature of a substitute which significantly expanded the scope of the legislation in addressing restrictions on attendance by federal employees at conferences and meetings. However, H.R. 4631as amended, unlike the provisions passed by the House and Senate in April, would more appropriately address the GSA controversy and does not unduly restrict the participation of federal employees in non-agency sponsored conferences. The amendment was adopted and the bill was passed by voice vote as amended. To access the current language of the bill, please go to: http://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/WALSIL_032_xml.pdf
The language of H.R. 4631 differs in key areas from the language on the issue passed by the House as part of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012 (H.R. 2146) and the United States Senate as part of the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012 (S. 1789). Specifically and most importantly, there is no restriction on federal employees attending more than one conference per year per nongovernmental organization. If the restriction in H.R. 2146 and S. 1789 were enacted, it could undermine the ability of non-federal organizations to meet with federal officials on policy matters as well as limit the exchange of information between the public and private sector which is often conducted at conferences. This was the major concern by associations with the language passed by the House and Senate and the change is a direct result of the efforts of American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), Worldwide ERC® and other organizations that weighed-in on the issue.
H.R. 4631 also differs from H.R. 2146 and S. 1789 in that the definition of “conference” excludes those events or meetings in which the federal employee or employees travel less than 25 miles. This is important for associations such as Worldwide ERC® that often hold conferences in the Washington, DC area which are attended by federal employees who live in work in the Nation’s Capital. The expanded language would keep intact reporting requirements on funds expended on conferences including travel costs as well as require that presentations made by federal employees at conference would need to be made public. H.R. 4631 would also legislate pieces of a memorandum issued on May 11 by the Office of Management and Budget to address the GSA controversy. Those include a reduction of 30% in annual travel expenses by Federal agencies through Fiscal Year 2017.
The efforts by Congress and the Obama Administration are in response to a report by the GSA Office of Inspector General (OIG) which identified excessive and wasteful spending at a GSA hosted conference in 2010 in Las Vegas. The conference in question was the biennial Western Regions Conference (WRC) of the Public Buildings Service (PBS) of the GSA. The conference was for approximately 300 attendees and cost $822,751.
The report sparked massive media attention which led to four congressional hearings on the issue and calls on Capitol Hill about needing to prevent such wasteful spending in the future. As a result, the House and Senate quickly passed language in H.R. 2146 and S. 1789 that would limit federal agency sponsorship of conferences hosted by non-federal entities. The language also would inadvertently limit federal employees from participating at no more than one conference or meeting hosted per non-federal organization per year. The language in H.R. 2146 and S. 1789 therefore did not accurately address the problem since the conference in question was hosted by a federal agency and not an association or other non-federal entity. H.R. 4631 would more accurately implement the intent of Congress in addressing the problem.
The ASAE is now focusing its efforts on educating Senate offices about the need to alter language addressing the issue to be more consistent with the H.R. 4631 as opposed to S. 1789.
Posted by Tristan North