It’s not always easy to get a federal employee on the phone. Now we know a bit more about where they are when we call.
Federal spending on out-of-town conferences has increased by nearly 70 percent over the past five years, according to Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, one Republican who is taking on a leadership role in the fight against government waste.
A survey by the senator’s staff found that federal agencies spent more than $1.4 billion since 2000 sending employees to such conferences — many at top-notch hotels in exotic locales. But this is probably just the tip of the iceberg, since there were large gaps in the reports various federal agencies provided in response to a request from the senator’s office.
And what taxpayers get in return for all the travel, lodging and room service is hard to determine — besides a well-tanned federal workforce.
Coburn, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management (take a breath), Government Information and International Security (take another breath), at a hearing last week took special aim at the Department of Health and Human Services, which increased spending on conferences from $46.7 million in 2000 to $62.1 million 2005. This despite efforts by former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to bring spending under control.
In 2004, the agency sent groups of more than 100 employees to 59 conferences, Coburn said, noting that one event in Orlando, Fla., had more than 1,000 HHS employees in attendance.
One former HHS official, Scott Evertz, told Coburn’s committee that some agency staff had “an attitude of entitlement concerning international travel,” and that they resisted when Thompson tried to put the brakes on some of the trips. “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 testified. “It is my observation that many such conferences or meetings are a waste of time and money.”
Conference spending at the Department of Housing and Urban Development — a leading agency in the fight against poverty — increased from $3.2 million in fiscal 2001 to $13.9 million in fiscal 2005, according to Coburn. The Environmental Protection Agency saw travel expenses balloon from $10.8 million in 2002 to $22.4 million in 2004. The senator lauded the Department of Energy for its efforts to discourage staff junkets to resort destinations.
Coburn wants agencies to begin posting conference expenses on their Web sites in order to increase transparency and accountability. But if this information is buried away somewhere, we’re not sure that will do the trick. A better idea would be drawing conference funds from the same accounts that federal employee bonuses come from — that may do far more to cool the enthusiasm for such adventures.