Crackdown on conferences clears Senate

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Charles Dharapak/AP

The Senate on Tuesday voted to curb agency spending on conferences and to limit the number of employees from a single agency who can attend.

An amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was approved by voice vote and attached to a larger U.S. Postal Service reform bill. A similar provision has been added to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which the House is scheduled to vote on Wednesday.

Coburn called the amendment a “first step in comprehensive conference and transparency reform.” It would cap the amount that could be spent on any conference at $500,000 (except when an agency is the primary sponsor) and require all conference expenses to be posted online. Agencies could shell out no more than 80 percent of what they spent on conferences in 2010, according to a Coburn statement. No more than 50 employees from a single agency would be allowed to attend international meetings.

The crackdown also would allow nonfederal foundations and other parties to finance a conference as long as they are publicly listed and vetted for conflicts of interest. Outside sponsors would be limited to one conference per year. Details on conferences would have to be posted quarterly and include a rationale for the event linked to the agency’s mission.

“Congress has finally said ‘the party’s over’ when it comes to conference spending,” Coburn said. “We have seen scandal after scandal because Congress has failed to do oversight. The purpose of oversight is to prevent scandals, not respond to scandals.”

Coburn said his reforms could save $65 million a year.

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