The rancor over the General Service Administration's (GSA) irresponsible behavior continues to mount. Committees on Capitol Hill held back-to-back hearings on Monday and Tuesday examining the October 2010 GSA Las Vegas conference and other inappropriate spending. These were the first of four hearings scheduled this week on the GSA conference issue. The Senate today held the first of two hearings on the topic.

In both House hearings, it was encouraging that the overall dialogue did not revolve around the value of conferences or meetings, although a select few members did express support for restricting government travel. Members of Congress focused most of their attention on lavish expenditures by a small group of GSA employees, failures to follow federal travel regulations, insufficient oversight and disciplinary actions by GSA leadership and a lack of transparency in GSA's budget.

Significant Challenges for Travel Industry Possible

During the Transportation and Infrastructure hearing, Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) said he would introduce a bill to ban GSA conferences. U.S. Travel is in contact with his office to discourage him from introducing such a draconian bill and will suggest more productive approaches to encourage ethical GSA conferences.

We also expect that Congressional leaders and federal agency Inspectors General will begin to investigate whether federal officials are receiving kick-backs and bribes for meetings and conference contracts. We are concerned that this issue - if improperly understood - could spread to other federal agencies and the private sector. Attention to these types of probes was highlighted in today's Washington Post article on the developing investigations into GSA conferences:

GSA is taking action to review conferences and travel planned for this year. The reviews are in response to questions about GSA's oversight and management of travel budgets. Actions taken by GSA include the cancellation of the 2012 Western Regions Conference and 35 additional conferences totaling $995,686. GSA is also putting in place greater controls and oversight, and reviewing other scheduled events to make sure that any travel is justified by a mission requirement.

The House Oversight Committee is in the process of reviewing travel records of 23 federal agencies dating back to 2005. This will undoubtedly lead to further allegations of excessive government spending on travel and further pressure to review federal travel budgets.

Travel Industry Efforts to Manage Situation

U.S. Travel will continue to engage Congressional leaders on the value of meetings, conferences, and government travel, and reinforce that instances of excessive spending on travel are the result of poor decision-making and a failure to follow federal travel regulations.

We are working closely with those members who are considering legislation and additional regulations on federal travel to ensure an appropriate and measured response. To coordinate a united and powerful response to this crisis, we will continue to partner with the Society of Government Travel Professionals, the Society of Government Meeting Planners and a myriad of associations involved with meetings and event planning.

Members Fighting for Conferences and Meetings

In response to outreach by U.S. Travel and industry leaders, several Congressional leaders are already stepping up to defend travel, conferences and meetings. These members are part of U.S. Travel's Meetings Mean Business educational campaign. Below are a few examples of their initiative:

  • Members of the Nevada Congressional delegation, including Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) sent letters and made public statements asking House and Senate committee leaders to not single out Las Vegas or the value of conferences, and to focus their hearings on missteps by GSA officials.
  • Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) made several comments in support of federal employees and the need for adequate oversight so that federal travel can continue.
  • Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) encouraged GSA officials to use "metrics-based outcomes" to review conferences and travel, rather than making indiscriminate cuts to travel budgets.
  • Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) said in her opening statement that the issue at-hand was federal officials disregarding the travel rules and tax payer interests, not the destination of Las Vegas.

Additional Media Coverage

Thus far, it is encouraging that Washington's response to this scandal is markedly different than the crisis of 2009. Thanks to your continuing efforts and engagement, our industry has come a long way in educating policymakers on the importance of travel. But the GSA scandal still presents a potential threat to our industry and we must work together to protect the travel community from unintended consequences.

Roger J. Dow
President & CEO
U.S. Travel Association