Feds' conference spending down after reforms, officials say

In this April 18, 2012 file photo, GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini testifies during a hearing before Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
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Updated Jan. 15, 12:10 p.m. ET

Federal agencies and departments have drastically cut exorbitant spending on employee conferences in recent years, top administration officials said Tuesday at a Senate hearing.

  Reforms aimed at preventing wasteful spending at taxpayer-funded conferences were put in place two years ago after a scandal rocked the General Services Administration. Government watchdogs pounced when it was revealed that the GSA spent more than $800,000 for a training conference at a luxurious Las Vegas casino. The agency's top official was forced to resign.

"We used the attention brought to this matter and the mistakes that were made" to critically look at conference spending and "do a top-to-bottom review of the agency," GSA administrator Dan Tangherlini told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Tangherlini said the GSA decreased travel expenses by 80 percent since the scandal. He took over the support agency in 2012 and the Senate confirmed him for a full appointment last year.

"Conferences over $500,000 are prohibited unless I approve them and document the justification for why they must be held," Tangherlini said, although Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., later noted that the agency has authorized a few costly conferences in recent years.

Coburn, the ranking member on the committee, also suggested new legislation is necessary to further enforce the federal guidelines. He introduced a bill last year that would cap conference spending at $500,000 and require all expenses to be published online in one place.

The GSA director was joined at the hearing by Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. She oversaw internal spending at McKinsey & Company, a top consulting firm, before President Barack Obama nominated her to the post in September.

In her opening remarks, Cobert said progress was made across the executive branch, touting travel spending reductions from last year: $181 million in the Treasury Department, $99 million in the Department of the Interior and $35 million in the Environmental Protection Agency.

Much of the savings were achieved by canceling conferences, cutting the number of attendees and increasing administrative oversight, she said. Departments have also been instructed to utilize technology for webinars and video conferences to avoid costly travel and hotels.

"There's a lesson to be learned on how to apply technology," Cobert said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a staunch fiscal conservative, praised the progress that has been made but quizzed the officials on transparency. Federal agencies and departments publish expense reports on their own websites, creating a "diffuse" system of information, he said.

The Senate panel later heard testimony from the inspectors general of the GSA, the Justice Department and the Treasury Department, who spoke on further efforts to curb excessive spending.