Senate approves controls on federal conferences

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday approved a set of controls on federal agency conferences, the first response from Congress to the GSA’s “over the top” spending at a 2010 meeting in Las Vegas.

An amendment that passed by voice vote would require government departments to publish quarterly reports online about out-of-town conferences they sponsor, including why each was necessary and why the same business couldn’t be conducted by teleconference or videoconference.

The posting would need to detail the location of each meeting and, to justify by cost, why it was selected – whether a resort city such as Las Vegas or a less glamorous destination.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the amendment he proposed attempts to get a handle on federal conference spending, which totaled
$2.2 billion from 2000 to 2006, according to available records, and continues to run a minimum $500 million a year.

“This is all about transparency and creating a system where we are actually getting to see what is spent on conferences,” he said. “At a time we need to have less, (conferences) have grown remarkably during the Bush administration as well as this administration.”

The amendment would cap spending on individual conferences at $500,000 and cut federal spending on meetings by 20 percent. Coburn said the controls could save $65 million annually.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said the General Services Administration’s October 2010 Western Regions Conference at the M Resort in Henderson shined “klieg lights” on government meetings, and the glare was not pretty.

“I’ve reached the conclusion we are spending too much money,” Lieberman said.

An inspector general’s investigation calculated agency officials spent $823,000 on the four-day conference in Henderson. It declared much of the spending to be “excessive and wasteful,” including parties, a talent show, a mindreader/motivational speaker, commemorative coins, memento books and a $75,000 bicycle-building teamwork exercise.

The conference’s main organizer, San Francisco-based regional commissioner Jeffrey Neely, reportedly told planners he wanted the Las Vegas event to be unforgettable and “over the top.” He is on administrative leave while GSA leaders contemplate action against him and as the Justice Department reviews a recommendation from the agency’s inspector general that he be prosecuted.

The conference controls were added to a bill to restructure the U.S. Postal Service the Senate expects to complete this week. The House has not yet considered the bill. As the Senate prepared to take up the Coburn amendment, officials this week signaled it might be killed in conference committee after the House passes its version of the Postal Service bill.

Lieberman said Tuesday that Democrats have begun to work with Coburn on “a couple of parts” of his amendment to “make this better,” but it was not clear which ones.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the Coburn bill was acceptable to him. As investigators and congressional committees unraveled the GSA scandal this month, Reid defended Las Vegas, saying the problem was wrongdoing within the agency and not the conference destination.

“I believe that when we have a conference involving the government, there should be common sense involved, not stupidity,” Reid said. “I have no problem with the rules that Coburn is suggesting. While they may not be perfect, they are good. We want government money not to be wasted.”

Reid said he did not believe the proposed new controls target Las Vegas.

“Las Vegas is a place where people love to go, it is inexpensive, and there are a lot of things there,” he said. “But there are a lot of government conferences held elsewhere. This is not a Las Vegas issue.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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