Army brass defies a costly trend by cutting London trip

Canceling travel is one of many penny-pinching moves the service plans to take until emergency spending bill is enacted.

Faced with a budget crunch and a supplemental spending bill that has yet to be reconciled between the House and Senate, the Army is severely restricting travel -- even canceling appearances by several of its top officers at an international military conference next week in London.

But critics of excessive government spending quickly noted that the Defense Department has ample funds for conference travel, including golf, bowling and other meetings in such prime destinations as Las Vegas and Hawaii. "I guess if you can't work on the naval base in Hawaii, at least you could conference there," one House aide said.

Indeed, the department spent $79.3 million for conference travel last year alone, according to a December 2005 letter from J. David Patterson, a principal deputy to the Pentagon comptroller, to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

About 36,100 civilian and military personnel attended 6,600 conferences worldwide in fiscal 2005, at an average cost of $2,196 per attendee. Of those meetings, 663 were held in Florida, 224 in Las Vegas and 98 in Hawaii, according to a copy of the letter obtained by CongressDaily. This year, travel expenses are slightly down, projected at $77.9 million.

Still, that is a dramatic increase above the $62.3 million the department spent in fiscal 2001. A Pentagon spokesman said Friday the Office of the Secretary of Defense is trying to scale back some of its travel to save money, and is encouraging the military services to do the same.

The Pentagon comptroller's office devised the figures using a definition for "conference" provided by Coburn, specifically "a meeting for consultation, education or discussion that includes non-agency participants, not held entirely at an agency facility," according to the letter. But critics say not all travel is centered around important national security matters.

Indeed, last year's round of meetings included the Armed Forces Golf Conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., the Armed Forces Bowling Training and Trade Show in Las Vegas and the Armed Forces Bowling Conference in Orlando.

But there also are many meetings with rigorous schedules that draw thousands of top personnel from militaries worldwide. The land warfare conference next week in London, for example, attracts general officers from the British, French, Australian and German armies, among others. Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker was scheduled to deliver an address, but he and at least six other U.S. generals pulled out at the last minute because of budget woes, a defense source said.

Canceling travel -- even for its highest-ranking officers -- is one of many penny-pinching moves the service plans to take until the House and Senate forward the fiscal 2006 emergency supplemental for military operations and hurricane relief to President Bush's desk for signature. The Army's portion of the $92 billion-plus bill, which remains in conference, is expected to be more than $36 billion.

"There are two sides to the story," a Coburn spokesman said this week. "One is that we're sympathetic to the Army's concerns" about the supplemental spending bill, which has been languishing in Congress for weeks.

But he also noted that the Army and other agencies "can obviously cut back on some spending." It is an issue that Coburn will address when the Senate takes up the Defense appropriations bill later this year, the spokesman added.