Senate likely to pass conference controls, but quietly

In the wake of the rabid overspending for the GSA's  2010 Western Regions Conference, the Senate is poised this week to approve new controls on meetings sponsored by federal agencies.  But they are not expected to make a lot of noise about it.

An amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.,  has been accepted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for consideration as part of a U.S. Postal Service reform bill, with debate expected  on Tuesday.

But Roll Call reported this morning that Coburn's amendment likely will be passed by unanimous consent, avoiding a recorded vote and potentially more speeches about the now-infamous $823,000 conference that might embarrass Las Vegas, where it was held.

An amendment that seeks to rein in spending on conferences figures to pass overwhelming one way or the other, after taxpayers were treated to stories this month about semi-private catered in-room parties, $75,000 bicycle building team exercise and spending on commemorative coins and yearbook-style mementoes at the General Services Administration conference at the M Resort in Henderson.

But, Roll Call reports, "leaders have long used voice votes to pass amendments that they would like to nix in conference committee later,"  and a Senate aide this morning confirmed that is what is most likely to happen to Coburn's amendment.  The House has yet to take up the bill.

The amendment (SA2060 on this attachment) would require government agencies to post a report on the Internet each quarter on each conference for which it paid travel expenses.

The posting would need to list the conference location and justify why it was selected including cost-efficiency.  Sponsors would need to explain  how the meeting "advanced the mission of the agency," and why a travel meeting was held rather than conducting a teleconference instead.  It also caps the cost for an individual conference at $500,000 and limits travel expenses to no more than 80 percent of what an agency spent in fiscal 2010.

The amendment does not mention any destinations by name.  It could be a mixed bag for Las Vegas -- generally it's regarded as an affordable destination with facilities available for meetings of any size.  But some bureaucrats may get cold feet when it comes to justifying Sin City.

Coburn, who has spoken out in recent years about conference spending increases at the Department of Justice,  Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior, said Congress has itself to blame for the GSA scandal "because we refused to do the hard work of passing requirements that hold federal agencies accountable."

"It makes for great press and great TV when we stand aghast at what is obviously wasteful spending by an agency. But that accomplishes nothing other than advance the political careers of my colleagues," Coburn said. "What accomplishes something is real teeth, real legislation that holds the agencies accountable."

For instance, he said, "Every federal government agency today has the capability for doing teleconferencing. We don't have to send 1,000 people at $2,000 a piece to a conference to accomplish education and training. We all have it in our offices."