Federal spending on conferences soars

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says agency expeditures on attending events have grown by about 70 percent in five years.

The federal government's conference spending has ballooned by nearly 70 percent in the past five years, a GOP senator charged Tuesday.

Agencies that have sent employees on a high number of work-related trips are drawing the ire of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., after a review by his office found that agencies have spent more than $1.4 billion underwriting conferences and sending employees to them since fiscal 2000.

Coburn, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security, criticized agencies at a hearing Tuesday for sponsoring conferences or sending employees to conventions in "lavish locales" such as Palm Springs, Calif.; Atlantic City, N.J.; and Las Vegas.

Agencies should post their meeting and travel expenses on the Internet to increase transparency and scrutinize conference programs to determine their necessity, Coburn said.

The Health and Human Services Department drew pointed criticism from both Coburn and Scott Evertz, a former special assistant to then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. Evertz said he "witnessed an attitude of entitlement concerning international travel" by agency employees and "downright arrogance" when senior officials attempted to curtail work-related travel.

"It would appear that there was a limitless travel budget and that individuals could pick and choose which international conferences and meetings they would like to attend," Evertz said. "It is my observation that many such conferences or meetings are a waste of time and money."

Evertz said Thompson was able to implement policies eliminating business class air travel, saving thousands of dollars per ticket, and prohibiting employees from tacking on personal vacations after a conference trip. Those policies helped stabilize conference spending, he said. Between fiscal 2003 and fiscal 2005, conference expenditures grew from $61.7 million to $62.1 million.

Overall, HHS conference spending has risen from $46.7 million in fiscal 2000 to the fiscal 2005 level, according to the agency. More than half of that money is in the form of conference grants to universities and research institutions awarded on a competitive basis, the agency maintains.

Coburn criticized HHS for sending large delegations of federal employees to conferences. In 2004, for example, the department sent groups of more than 100 employees to 59 conferences, he said. The senator also cited an Orlando, Fla., conference attended by more than 1,000 agency employees and the 2002 International AIDS Conference held in Barcelona, Spain, attended by 236 HHS employees at a cost of $3.6 million.

Testifying on behalf of the agency, Charles Johnson, HHS assistant secretary for budget, technology and finance, said employees' participation in conferences "is a cost-efficient way for the department to communicate with its program stakeholders."

He said HHS is concerned about maintaining strict control over conferences and a memorandum was issued to all division heads strengthening the department's policy on conference sponsorship.

James Martin, acting deputy chief financial officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department, also was criticized by the committee because HUD's conference spending increased from $3.2 million in fiscal 2001 to $13.9 million in fiscal 2005.

Martin said the 989 conferences supported by HUD in fiscal 2005 were within the agency's mission and goals and that the sharp increase was due to outreach efforts on a number of major program change proposals.

Michael Ryan, deputy chief financial officer at the Environmental Protection Agency, said EPA's travel expenditures were projected to drop off to $15.9 million in 2005, as of August 2005. Spending rose from $10.8 million in 2002 to $22.4 million in 2004.

According to Ryan, if EPA had greater authority to retain fees to offset its cost of hosting conferences, then its expenditures would be greatly reduced.

State Department Acting Chief Financial Officer Sid Kaplan said the agency has taken steps to institute controls over conference participation and has encouraged the use of technology. Those efforts, combined with the fact that some conferences are nonrecurring events, helped spending fall from $30.9 million in fiscal 2004 to $26.5 million in fiscal 2005, he said.

A request to all federal agencies from Coburn's office for reports on conference spending and attendance in the past five years came back with substantial gaps, according to the senator. An exception was the Energy Department, which Coburn said submitted a detailed report on policies discouraging resort and recreational travel destinations, and justifications for sending employees to conferences.

Coburn, elected to the Senate in 2004, lists the reduction of unnecessary spending as one of his top five priorities. He led a failed attempt to eliminate the Pentagon's $474 million Defense Travel System in October 2005 -- a program he deemed wasteful -- and recently held hearings on unused federal property that he said wastes billions of federal dollars each year.

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