Obama Administration Issues New Rules for Government Conferences

U.S. Travel Association Introduces Proposal to Preserve Government Meetings
In response to Congressional efforts at restricting government meetings, the U.S. Travel Association has put forth a proposal to preserve government conferences while also strengthening oversight of federal spending on them, it announced last week.

"As Congress continues to advance restrictive legislation on government travel, it is important that the travel industry advocate for sensible reforms that preserve the government's ability to hold ethical conferences," said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. "U.S. Travel today put forth a positive proposal to strengthen oversight of government conferences that ensures federal agencies can still use meetings and conferences to provide valuable services to the taxpayer. Just like the taxpayer, the travel industry depends on adequate oversight and ethical standards for all federal travel — because this is the only way that legitimate and productive travel can continue to take place."

To ensure that conferences remain an effective tool of the federal government, U.S. Travel has recommended that Congress: 1) require federal agencies to report all conference-related expenditures and conference contracting procedures to their inspector generals at the end of each fiscal year; and 2) ensure that agencies select conference locations based solely on cost-effectiveness by permanently eliminating the "blacklisting" of American cities for government conferences and meetings.

"U.S. Travel is meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to advocate for our proposal to increase oversight and preserve government conferences, while dissuading members of Congress from supporting other measures that could have unintended consequences for our industry," Dow continued. "Additionally, we are continuing to focus resources on informing lawmakers on the value of meetings, events and conferences."

As Congress continues to mull over legislation that would regulate government spending on meetings in response to the General Services Administration (GSA) scandal, the Obama Administration has acted, according to the Washington Post: On Friday, it reported, the president's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memo to government officials mandating that federal agencies spend 30 percent less on travel expenses.

"One of the federal government's most fundamental responsibilities is to serve as a careful steward of taxpayer dollars — to make sure that every dollar is well-spent and directed toward areas of high return," OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients wrote in a blog post announcing the new guidance on government travel. "Today, we're taking another important step forward in that effort. This afternoon, the Office of Management and Budget is issuing guidance to federal agencies to take additional actions to increase efficiency and strengthen accountability in the areas of travel [and] conferences."

In addition to spending cuts, new rules:

• "Require deputy secretaries to review any conference where the agency spending could exceed $100,000;

• "Prohibit agencies from spending over $500,000 on a conference unless the agency's secretary approves a waiver;

• "And require agencies to post publicly each January on the prior year's conference spending, including descriptions of agency conferences that cost more than $100,000."

According to Zients, "This new guidance builds upon work already underway to scrutinize travel and conference budgets. Last September, for instance, OMB directed agency leadership to conduct thorough reviews of their agency's spending in travel and conference spending. As a result, federal agencies have begun implementing plans to achieve nearly $1.2 billion in travel and conference savings. Already, DHS generated more than $13 million in travel cost avoidance; the State Department will hold the majority of their conferences in government facilities as opposed to renting hotels; and USDA has reduced travel spending by $47 million by reducing the number of conferences and increasing the use of video conference technology."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said "requiring agencies to post their conference spending online should be a major deterrent to the kind of reckless spending that occurred at GSA's western regions conference."

U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow promised to work with lawmakers to minimize damage to the U.S. travel industry. "We will continue to monitor this issue closely and work with the administration to mitigate any adverse impacts to travel," he said.