Created by on 5/29/2012 12:00:00 AM

In the wake of the uproar over a costly and widely publicized General Services Administration (GSA) conference in Las Vegas, language was added on April 25th to House and Senate bills intended to severely limit federal spending on conferences and curtail travel by government employees. The Senate amendment (introduced by Senators Tom Coburn, R-OK; John McCain, R-AZ; and Ron Johnson, R-WI) was added to the Postal Service Act (S 1789), and in the House, identical language was attached to the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act (HR 2146). Passed by the House earlier this year, the DATA Act has limited support in the Senate. The Postal Service Act passed by the Senate, however, could move through the House this year. 
In addition to creating obstacles to agency sponsored conferences (e.g. increased reporting and justification for meeting expenditures), the travel language:
  • Explicitly prohibits travel expenses by more than 50 employees of any agency who are stationed in the United States, for any international conference occurring outside the United States, unless the Secretary of State determines that attendance for such employees is in the national interest
  • Limits agency travel expenditures to 80 percent of fiscal year 2010 levels
  • Requires public posting of any speech, exhibit, or slides presented at a supported meeting
  • Bans agencies 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.
As written, the travel language will further constrain the participation of government scientists in public meetings, scientific conferences, and professional society activities. It will also restrict federal support for scientific meetings, including Gordon, Keystone and FASEB Summer Research Conferences. Federally employed scientists could be limited to one meeting per year, eliminating their participation in events sponsored by professional societies or patient groups. If the “expend funds” language is interpreted rigidly, it could possibly apply to extramural grants and contracts as well.
The threat to scientific meetings and travel worsened when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memorandum on May 11th promoting efficient spending. The key travel and conference provisions in the OMB memo are as follows:
  • Require agencies to decrease spending on travel by 30 percent;
  • Require Deputy Secretaries to review any conference where the agency spending could exceed $100,000;
  • Prohibit agencies from spending over $500,000 on a conference unless the agency’s Secretary approves a waiver; and
  • Require agencies to post publicly each January on the prior year’s conference spending, including descriptions of agency conferences that cost more than $100,000. 
Agencies have 90 days to report to OMB on how they will implement the guidance.
FASEB is working to prevent a disastrous curtailment of scientific communication, and we are exploring the most efficacious ways to mitigate the potential damage. One key factor will be the legislative calendar, which will determine when and where to deploy our efforts.
In the meantime, FASEB joined with 2,100 other groups and signed onto the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) letter proposing modifications to the travel language that will mitigate some of the damage. A letter organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and signed by FASEB and 51 other scientific organizations, including several FASEB member societies, urged Congress to allow greater flexibility for government employees to attend scientific and technical conferences organized or supported by professional societies and non-governmental organizations. FASEB has also been working with the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), which feels that the 30 percent cut to travel expenses is too severe and unrelated to the underlying problems with the GSA conference. FASEB is supporting USTA’s work with Senate leadership to discuss the OMB policy and improve the pending Senate amendment on the Postal Reform bill. USTA also issued a statement on the GSA conference.