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How Often Do You Use the Conference Lodging Allowance?

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Belt-tightening across government means that most federal spending is under scrutiny these days, and spending on government travel is no exception.

The scandal involving the lavish 2010 Las Vegas conference thrown by the General Services Administration prodded federal watchdogs to peer into other agencies’ travel spending. At the same time, the Obama administration continues to try to rein in travel budgets through the regulatory process. The latest move is a proposed rule in Tuesday’s Federal Register that would no longer allow federal travelers to take advantage of the conference lodging allowance reimbursement option.

GSA wants to remove language in the Federal Travel Regulation allowing government travelers to exceed the maximum lodging per diem rate by up to 25 percent when attending conferences for work. The proposal, which the public has two months to comment on, is part of GSA’s effort “to allow agencies to get a firmer grasp on how their travel dollars are used,” the notice stated.

When federal employees attend a conference for official business now and the lodging exceeds the maximum per diem rate for that area, they can request reimbursement based on what’s known as actual expense authority, or the conference lodging allowance. The conference lodging allowance, which was added to the FTR in 2000, was designed to give federal employees and authorizing officials more flexibility in choosing convenient lodging when attending events.

By getting rid of the option, GSA expects to save $9 million annually. “Removal of the conference lodging allowance will assist agencies in reducing their overall travel costs, while allowing meeting planners to negotiate lodging rates at or below the prescribed per diem rate for the location,” GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said.

Eliminating that reimbursement option for government travelers is part of a governmentwide effort to comply with a May Office of Management and Budget memorandum directing agencies to spend at least 30 percent less on travel than they did in fiscal 2010 for the next three fiscal years.

In August, GSA announced that it would freeze fiscal 2013 travel reimbursement rates for lodging and other related expenses at fiscal 2012 levels to save money. GSA establishes per diem rates for lodging, meals and incidental expenses in the continental United States. A standard per diem is applied to locations less commonly traveled by federal workers, while nonstandard areas that are visited frequently are granted individual rates based on the average daily industry rate.

The standard lodging rate, which covers hotels in 2,600 counties nationwide, is currently $77 a night and the standard per diem meal rate is $46. Lodging and meal per diem rates vary according to region and time of year, however.

Federal travelers: How often do you use the conference lodging allowance reimbursement rate? How would this proposed rule change affect your government travel? Send me an email at klunney@govexec.com.

Disaster Travel

Also this week, GSA published a final rule allowing agencies to approve travel expenses without GSA sign off for employees responding to presidentially declared disaster areas. Prior to the change, agencies were not authorized to provide blanket approval for employees to incur expenses that exceeded the government’s lodging and travel rates without asking GSA first. “Now, federal agencies can process these waivers independently without GSA when processing expenses for temporary duty travel to disaster relief areas,” Cruz said. “This minor change offers a more streamlined policy for federal agencies.”

(Image via dotshock/Shutterstock.com)

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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