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Congressional measure would all but prohibit fed employees from attending conferences


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The U.S. House and Senate in two separate bills have passed an amendment that places limits on federal employees from attending agency-sponsored and private conferences if any federal funds are used for travel expenses. The definitions used in the amendment (

see the amendment language here) impose severe restrictions on all private conferences: associations, other nonprofits, and corporations could only have a federal agency’s employees attend one meeting held by that organization every year.

 

The amendment is dubbed the "GSA amendment" as it reflects Congressional anger at the recent GSA overspending scandal, notwithstanding the fact that the meeting in question was NOT organized by an outside organization, but by the GSA itself.

 

Sponsored on the Senate side by "Dr. No" Tom Coburn (R-OK), the amendment to the

21st Century Postal Service Act would cut federal conference spending by 20 percent from 2010 levels.

 

The Coburn measure also would:

• Cap agency spending on a single conference at $500,000, unless the agency was the primary sponsor.

• Limit to 50 the number of employees from a single agency traveling to a conference in another country.**

• Require agencies to report four times a year on conference spending

 

**In reality, some agencies have far more stringent restrictions. They allow only three employees to attend out-of-country conferences unless a special exception is made, and these exceptions, if made, are typically made at the last minute, making it impossible for the employees to arrange travel, visas (if needed), child-care, and handle other logistical measures.

 

A similar measure has been inserted into the DATA Act, a bill pending in the House. While control of federal spending with regard to conferences (agency and otherwise) seems reasonable, the problem is the wording of the legislation. According to a letter from the Center for Association Leadership (ASAE):

 

 

Section 1(D) defines “conference” as a meeting “sponsored by 1 or more agencies, 1 or more organizations that are not agencies, or a combination of such agencies or organizations.” This definition would encompass every conference held by an

association, corporation or virtually any other non-governmental organization. Our recommendation is to revise this definition to a meeting “sponsored by 1 or more agencies.”

 

"The final section of the amendment, Section 4, limits any agency from expending funds on “more than a single conference sponsored or organized by an organization during any fiscal year, unless the agency is the primary sponsor and organizer of the conference.” This provision is highly problematic for agency employees seeking education from nongovernmental sources and for the associations and other private sector organizations that invite government employees to conferences. A reasonable reading of this provision would mean that if employees of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) attended a scientific conference sponsored by a medical association, no other employees of the Department of Health and Human Services could attend any other conference held by that same association for the remainder of the fiscal year. Our recommendation would be to strike this final provision from the amendment.

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  • 3 months later...

UPDATE: The Senate bill (S. 1789) was approved by the Senate in April. The House bill (H.R. 2146) was approved by the House and sent to the Senate where it is being considered by the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

 

In the short time remaining before the elections in November, it is highly unlikely that these bills will be reconciled and sent to the President for signature. However, it is possible that these measures may be attached to appropriations bills; the Congress will be focusing on enacting a stop-gap spending bill before it recesses for the elections.

 

Thousands of organizations from every sector have opposed these restrictions.

 

Watch this space for updates.

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