Lawmakers fight policies limiting conferences in resort destinations

Lawmakers representing popular vacation destinations are mounting a fight against policies that allegedly discourage agencies from holding conferences in resort areas.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Monday sent a letter to agency heads asking them to reverse any policies discriminating against particular cities as conference destinations. And Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has proposed legislation to make such policies illegal.

"Now more than ever, taxpayer dollars need to be spent wisely and should maximize benefit to the government," Reid wrote in a July 27 letter. "By following these principles -- and ignoring ill-conceived biases or perceptions about resort destinations -- our government decision makers will serve the interests of all taxpayers, and Nevada will receive its deserved share of meeting-and-convention business from federal agencies."

Reid said Las Vegas, despite its reputation for luxury, is convenient and offers competitive rates for hotels and conference sites.

His letter to agency leaders followed correspondence with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel seeking the administration's help on clarifying conference policies. In a June 26 letter to Emanuel, Reid noted that Las Vegas businesses told him that they were being hurt by internal government policies. He asked that the administration issue a directive emphasizing agencies cannot rule out conference locations on the basis that they are too leisure oriented. As one example, Reid said the FBI director canceled a scheduled meeting in Las Vegas for another city, pursuant to a new policy.

But Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, the FBI's parent agency, said Justice did not have any policy restricting travel to Las Vegas.

In response to Reid's inquiry, Emanuel said the administration agreed federal policy should not discourage travel based on a location's reputation. Rather, destinations should be selected after a cost-benefit analysis, he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the federal government should lead by example in tightening its belt and justifying its expenditures as we meet the priority challenge of reducing the national deficit and debt," Emanuel wrote. "For me, the test of government travel is what will be accomplished by that travel and whether the cost to the government is reasonable as opposed to other options."

Nelson last week introduced legislation that would prohibit agencies from blacklisting any U.S. city due to its location or reputation. In a statement Nelson said he would try to advance the measure as an amendment to the spending bill of any agency that has a blacklist policy, or to the 2009 Travel Promotion Act. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the Travel Promotion Act, and it now will go to the full Senate.

John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said Coburn did not support restricting conference destinations, but was glad agencies were responding to concerns about taxpayer-funded travel to locations with reputations for luxury. Hart added that Coburn -- who frequently criticizes agencies for what he considers excessive conference spending -- cared more about trimming government expenditures than dealing with the perception.

"Dr. Coburn is more concerned with cleaning the inside of the cup, not the outside of the cup," he said.

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