Federal Bill Would Severely Limit Government Attendance at Meetings

Update: March 22, 2013
The Senate passed an amended version of H.R. 933 on March 20, which was passed by the House on March 21 and now heads to the president for his signature. The Coburn amendment was not put to a vote, and is therefore not included in the final bill.

Today, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on a six-month stopgap spending bill that would fund the federal government until Sept. 30, 2013, locking in sequestration cuts that took effect on March 1 but softening their impact on military and defense budgets. Although it would avert an impending government shutdown on March 27 — when current federal funding expires — the bill could be bad news for the meetings industry, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) reported last week.

According to ASAE, the bill (H.R. 933) — which passed the House of Representatives early this month — includes a last-minute amendment (S. Amendment 67) that would prohibit federal agencies from sending more than 25 employees to any meeting or conference held in the United States.

Sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the amendment is a response to the GSA scandal of 2012, in which General Services Administration employees were found to have spent $823,000 on travel, catering and entertainment for a 2010 government conference in Las Vegas.

“Conferences and junkets for federal employees is an area where Congress can take immediate action to cut costs and prevent waste,” reads the Coburn amendment. “According to an analysis by a congressional committee, the federal government spent at least $267.6 million on 767 conferences in FY2012. This figure includes only the ‘big ticket’ conferences costing more than $100,000. Even this conservative estimate on government-wide conference spending is simply unacceptable given our current fiscal crisis.”

In his amendment, Coburn cites several examples of “wasteful” government spending on meetings, including not only the GSA, but also meetings held and attended by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Institutes of Health and the Social Security Administration.

“Reports in recent years have detailed numerous instances of unacceptable waste and extravagance of taxpayer funds at conferences,” the amendment continues. “By helping to put an end to all non-essential conferences, this amendment will help prevent this waste from occurring in the future.”

The Coburn Cure: Technology

Coburn argues that face-to-face meetings are not only wasteful, but unnecessary. Instead, he advocates a movement toward more virtual meetings.

“The tremendous technological advancements the world has made lately with teleconferencing, enabling people to interface directly from around the world, has greatly mitigated the need for expensive conferences,” the amendment concludes. “At a minimum, with the advent of these more efficient communication devices, lavish conferences at exotic locations are certainly not necessary and should be prevented in the future. This amendment would help prevent the unnecessary expenses of nonessential conferences and promote cost-effective use of technology.”

Industry Response

In response to the Coburn amendment, ASAE last week circulated a sign-on letter to its grassroots network, urging senators to oppose Amendment 67 on the grounds that it restricts the important dialogue that takes place between the public and private sectors at meetings.

“ASAE supports lawmakers’ efforts to curb wasteful or unnecessary government spending, but Amendment 67 would arbitrarily limit the number of federal employees who can attend a meeting or conference to learn about the latest industry practices and pick up insights from the private sector that could lead to more effective policymaking,” ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV said in a statement. “Isolating the government from the industries it regulates is a bad idea. We need to do everything we can to protect the mutually beneficial collaboration that occurs when government and the private sector meet face-to-face.”

ASAE delivered its letter — jointly signed by more than 200 associations — to Senate offices yesterday in advance of today’s vote.

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