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| 14 August 2012 | By Alexander Gaffney, RAC
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could find itself less able to put on jointly sponsored conferences if a new piece of legislation proposed in the US Senate is enacted into law.
The bill, S. 3481: The Stop Wasteful Federal Bonuses and Conferences Act of 2012, is the latest in a series of pushbacks against perceptions-real or imagined-that some government agencies spend too much money on lavish, taxpayer-funded conferences that provide little or no return on investment for employees.
The crisis started in April 2012, when reports emerged that staff at the General Services Administration (GSA), the agency charged with overseeing federal contracting and facilities maintenance, had spent nearly a million dollars on a conference featuring a clown, a mind reader and $7,000 in sushi rolls.
The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) led to subsequent reports regarding financial mismanagement by agencies, including a 13 August 2012 report by The Washington Examiner revealing most agencies don't have a firm grasp on how much they spend on conferences.
"Federal agency heads only have to convince themselves that they aren't squandering tax dollars on employee conferences. And even then they don't have to justify their decision to anybody above them, notwithstanding a recent directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)."
That OMB directive requires all agencies to spend 30% less on travel in 2012 than in 2010, and all conferences expending more than $100,000 would be required to receive approval from FDA's deputy secretary. Conferences spending more than $500,000 would be banned altogether unless personally approved by the head of the agency-in the case of FDA, Margaret Hamburg.
The Stop Wasteful Federal Bonuses and Conferences Act would go further than OMB, requiring Hamburg and other heads of agencies to personally approve all conferences where the government is expected to spend more than $200,000.
Conferences would be defined as any meeting held for, "Consultation, education or discussion…not held entirely at an agency facility," that involves travel and lodging costs for participants and is sponsored by one or more agencies or outside organizations.
Conferences would also be held to much stricter transparency standards under the Act. Each agency would be required to submit detailed information including the location of the conference, employees in attendance and their respective titles, the cost of the conference and a breakdown of the costs to the government.
The OMB's lower-level directives would presumably still be in effect regardless of whether the legislation passes. The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), is now before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs for further consideration.
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