Crackdown on government travel advances to full House

Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., introduced the bill. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., introduced the bill. Carolyn Kaster/AP
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved two bills Wednesday aimed at curbing excessive government spending, including a measure to cut agency travel spending by 30 percent.

The panel passed by voice vote a substitute amendment for the 2012 Government Spending Accountability Act (H.R. 4631). The bipartisan bill, introduced by Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., on April 25, was inspired by reports of the General Services Administration’s rampant spending on a 2010 conference in Las Vegas (its shorthand is the “GSA Act”). The Obama administration restricted conference spending by 20 percent governmentwide by executive order in November 2011, five months before the GSA scandal was uncovered.

“This bill should have bipartisan support because this is not a political issue,” Walsh said.

Walsh’s substitute amendment adds new limits. Among its provisions: An agency may not pay travel expenses for more than 50 of its employees for any single international conference unless granted approval by the secretary of State. Additionally, it dictates that all agencies must publicly report on their websites, at the start of each fiscal quarter, the details of any travel expenses paid for conferences during the previous quarter.

The bill now moves to the full House. A few committee members expressed concern it unfairly assumed the worst about all federal employees.

“I would caution against generalizing from one bad example,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “I don’t agree that this somehow characterizes the culture of the federal workforce. It does not.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., added: “There really does need to be a legislative response. It’s not enough just to say, ‘Go forward and sin no more.’ ” But, she added, “we want to make sure that when we cite GSA over and over again, that that is its own story.”

Additionally, the committee marked up the Government Employment Accountability Act (H.R. 6016), another GSA-inspired bill that would allow agency heads to place Senior Executive Service members on unpaid administrative leave if they are suspected of criminal activity or agency misconduct. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., said he introduced the legislation after seeing the way agency heads were forced to continue paying senior GSA executive Jeff Neely, the man chiefly seen as responsible for planning the 2010 Las Vegas conference, while he was on administrative leave as fallout from the scandal. Neely has since left GSA.

“There is just nothing in place right now for the heads of these agencies to handle it,” Kelly said. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also emphasized during discussion of the bill that any executive found not guilty of criminal or misconduct charges would be fully refunded of all the money they are owed.

The bill passed the committee without objection by voice vote and moved on to the House, though Norton wanted to see clarification for the circumstances that would allow agency heads to place executives on unpaid leave without due process.

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