Dr. Coburn believes the problem with conference spending is Congress, not the GSA or any other agency. Congress has fostered a spring-break mentality at agencies by looking the other way. Too often members would rather grow government than shrink government, particularly if a parochial interest is at stake. This amendment will send a long-overdue signal that Congress is listening to the American people and taking its oversight responsibilities seriously.
Summary of the Coburn #2060 amendment:
Provides a first step in comprehensive conference spending and transparency reform by scaling back overall conference spending, establishing attendance limitations to protect from excessive and unnecessary travel, and require full online transparency of all conference spending. These reforms could save more than $65 million every year.
Establishes a basic set of requirements for conference spending, including the following:
• Reduces the amount an agency can spend on conferences to 80 percent of the amount spent in 2010.
• Caps amount that can be spent on a single conference at $500,000 (unless the agency is the primary sponsor).
• Allows non-federal foundations and sources to provide financial support for a conference, but requires a listing of such sponsors and a certification that there is no conflict of interest resulting from support received from each.
• Prohibits sponsoring more than one conference per year per organization.
• Limits to 50 the number of employees from a single agency traveling to an international conference.
Requires a quarterly summary posted on the agency’s website of each conference supported or attended by an agency in the preceding 3 months, including:
• An explanation how the conference advanced the mission of the agency;
• Total cost of attendance and support for the conference;
• Primary sponsor of the conference;
• Location of the conference;
• A justification of the location including cost efficiency of the location;
• The dates; and
• The number and a listing by title of agency and non-federal employees whose attendance at the conference was paid for by the agency.
Dr. Coburn's past efforts to make conference spending transparent by holding Congress, and federal agencies, accountable:
"Throughout our history, presidents and lawmakers cut back non-defense spending during times of war. Today, Congress must follow that precedent and begin to curb the increase in spending on nonessential activities.” --Senator Tom Coburn, 9/14/06
In the summer 2005, as Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Senator Coburn first launched a government wide inquiry into travel spending and asked federal agencies to report conference sponsorship and participation since 2001 and found that the government had spent over $1.4 billion sending people to meetings and conferences the last five years. The data revealed that such spending had increased 70%. When fiscal year 2006 spending is totaled, these numbers are expected to grow.
The investigation uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on sending employees to conferences of questionable value. In addition to excessive spending on airfare, hotel rooms and per diems, the Subcommittee found excessive attendance levels, where agencies were sending dozens and even hundreds of employees to the same out-of-town meeting, sometimes overseas. The Subcommittee concluded that much travel to conferences is unnecessary given the fact that videoconferencing and the Internet allow the same information to be shared and exchanged.
During his time as Chairman, Senator Coburn held two hearings on this subject at which he called 14 government witnesses to defend their agency’s travel spending records. The Subcommittee also heard testimony from a former government official who discussed a “spring break” mentality on the conference circuit and characterized most conferences as “a waste of time and money.”
The investigation also revealed that government employees traveling to lavish locales including Crete, Australia, South Africa and Hawaii will often take annual leave before or after the conference, essentially charging taxpayers the cost of a plane ticket for their personal vacations, begging the question – would the conference have been attended if the employee hadn’t been able to combine with his vacation?
Every conference attended by Federal employees should be able to stand up to the following questions:
- Does the conference help further the Department’s mission?
- Could the information provided at the conference be disseminated instead through a teleconference, the Internet or scholarly publication subsequent to the conference?
- Is the location appropriate and justified?
- Is the number of employees attending justified, and could one employee attend instead of many, and provide detailed briefings to other employees afterward?
- Is this a wise use of tax dollars when we have an over $9 trillion national debt?
- Could the amount spent on the conference have been better spent on a higher priority, or not spent at all?
- This is an area the Subcommittee will continue to watch. Check back for updates.
Reports on conference spending:
• “For the Farmers or For the Fun?” - 2008 USDA report: USDA tripled conference expenditures since 2000, to $19.4 million in 2006. USDA saw a 191 percent increase in conference spending since 2000.
• “Party at the DOJ” - 2010 Department of Interior IG report: found DOI could save more than $20 million in travel costs each year by utilizing teleconferencing technology. According to the report, the Department owns $5 million worth of such equipment, but fails to fully use it, meanwhile spending millions on travel.
• “Justice Denied” - 2008 DOJ report: spent more than $312 million over 7 years on conferences. Includes $4 Meatballs, Congressional Training Sessions in Hawaii, and a Gang Prevention Event at a Palm Springs, Waldorf-Astoria Resort.
• 2008 report on HIV/AIDS conference cost taxpayers half a million dollars ($473,095), to send federal employees to Mexico.
Dr. Coburn's previous amendments on conference spending:
S. AMDT. 4787 to H.R.5631 would cap at $70 million the amount the Defense Department could spend on conferences and conference-related travel. In 2005, the Pentagon spent more than $79 million on conferences. The amendment was agreed to by voice vote on August 3, 2006 after the Senate rejected a motion to table, or kill, this amendment by a vote of 36 to 60. Roll call vote (a YEA vote is to kill the amendment and allow unlimited conference spending and a NAY vote is to support the amendment). Estimated savings: At least $9 million.
S. AMDT. 2230 to H.R. 3010 to limit reduce the Department of Health and Human Services’ funding for travel and conferences by $15 million. In 2005 alone, HHS spent $68.5 million on conferences. This amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent Oct. 27, 2005. Savings: $15 million.
S. AMDT. 2087 to H.R. 3058 limits Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for conferences to $3 million. In 2005 alone, HUD spent $13.9 million on conferences. The agency planned to spend $12,360,010 on conferences in 2006. This amendment was agreed to by voice vote on Oct. 20, 2005. Savings: $9.36 million.
S. AMDT. 3318 to H.R. 3093 would require NASA to post details of all conferences it will sponsor during fiscal year 2008. Specifically the amendment requires NASA to post on its public Web site: the itemized expenses paid by the agency, including travel expenses and any agency expenditure to otherwise support the conference; the primary sponsor of the conference; and the location of the conference. In the case of a conference for which the agency was the primary sponsor, the agency must include a statement that: justifies the location selected; demonstrates the cost efficiency of the location; the date of the conference; a brief explanation how the conference advanced the mission of the agency; and the total number of individuals who travel or attendance at the conference was paid for in part or full by the agency. This amendment was accepted by voice vote October 15, 2007.