President Orders Reduced Spending on Government Travel, Meetings

President Barack Obama has issued a new executive order restricting government spending on business travel and meetings, the White House announced last week.

Signed on Nov. 9, the executive order is intended to cut waste and promote efficient spending within the executive branch of the U.S. government by requiring federal agencies to cut by 20 percent their spending on travel and conferences; government-issued electronic devices, such as cell phones, smartphones, tablets and laptops; printed documents; motor vehicles; and "swag," such as promotional clothing, mugs and plaques.

All told, cuts are expected to save taxpayers $14 billion annually — or just one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget.

"From the day I took office, I've said we're going to comb the federal budget, line by line, to eliminate as much wasteful spending as possible," President Obama said. "We can't wait for Congress to act — we can't wait for them to get our fiscal house in order and make the investments necessary to keep America great. That's why today, I'm signing an executive order that will build on our efforts to cut waste and promote more efficient spending across the government — we're cutting what we don't need so that we can invest in what we do need."

The executive order is the latest initiative in the president's "Campaign to Cut Waste" — established in June 2011 to eliminate wasteful government spending — and one of several anti-travel actions taken by the federal government since Obama took office three years ago.

In 2009, the president established a new rule prohibiting federal political appointees from accepting gifts of any kind from lobbyists, including free registration to lobbyist-sponsored events (unless they receive the offer on the day of the event when they are speaking or presenting information in an official capacity). In September, meanwhile, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) proposed permanently extending that rule from political appointees to all federal employees, eliminating the ability of all government workers to accept small gifts — including meals and entertainment provided at meetings — and restricting their free attendance at trade shows.

Specifically, the president's latest order takes a "local first" approach to meetings and increasingly limits travel to "circumstances where the activity can only be performed away from the employee's primary office (e.g., a diplomatic mission or enforcement inspection)." Employees will continue attending local meetings and conferences in person, according to the White House, but will expand their use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing technology to participate in meetings or conferences that would normally require travel. If agencies are hosting or sponsoring conferences, they will use conference space controlled by the federal government whenever possible. Finally, every government agency will designate a senior-level official to be responsible for reducing travel costs.

Examples of steps currently being taken are:

• The IRS plans to utilize teleconferencing and webinars when possible as an alternative to traveling to conferences and training sessions. This and other efforts will result in 27 percent less spending on travel in fiscal year 2012.

• The Department of Energy is reducing travel costs by reducing the number of conferences, utilizing video teleconferencing, and issuing non-refundable airline tickets when travel does not require changes. This initiative will save $15.7 million in fiscal year 2012.

• NASA is reducing travel costs by approximately $17 million in fiscal year 2012 by reducing the number of attendees at meetings and conferences, encouraging rental car sharing and reducing foreign travel.

In response to the president's executive order, U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow urged "caution" on the part of the federal government.

"I respectfully ask that the administration take caution and safeguard opportunities for government travel and conferences," Dow wrote in a letter to the president. "Broad policies seeking to cut government travel budgets — such as the executive order signed today — can have the unintended consequence of discouraging legitimate government travel by adding extra layers of bureaucracy and making federal employees fearful to travel."

To read Dow's letter in its entirety, visit the U.S. Travel Association's website.