Spring Break, Federal Agency Style

(Photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images)

Adam Kazda Digital Content Creator, Restore Accountability
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Federal health employees, get your passports ready and call your travel agents! Agencies may once again be traveling first-class to lavish conference destinations thanks to a stealth provision inserted by a Senate committee.

You may remember hearing news of the General Services Administration’s (GSA) $800,000 blowout bash in Las Vegas that put all federal conferences under scrutiny. Perhaps $7,000 in sushi, $5,600 for “in-room parties,” thousands on an “artisanal cheese display” and over $100,000 in employee travel costs just to “scout” the event, just didn’t sit right with Congress or the White House. So in 2012, Congress enacted conference restrictions and transparency measures, and President Obama issued directives to curb the conference junket circuit and attendance by federal employees.

Since then, the perks just haven’t been the same. Gone were the days of Hawaii luaus and magical Disney festivities for HHS employees. Until now.

Slipped in through a manager’s amendment last week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee passed a measure that could drastically undermine federal conference transparency and reforms. The provision was included in S. 2700, the FDA and NIH Workforce Authorities Modernization Act, as it passed the Senate HELP Committee.

The amendment states that “Scientific meetings that are attended by scientific or medical personnel, or other professionals … shall not be considered conferences for the purposes of complying with Federal reporting requirements … and shall not be considered conferences for purposes of a restriction contained in an annual appropriations Act, based on Office of Management and Budget Memorandum M-12-12 or any other regulation restricting such travel.”

The language in the amendment is so vague practically anyone could be considered a professional. One wonders if the NIH, who utilized rabbits that received massages, and monkeys walking on treadmills, could classify any mammal as a professional. Even a professional chef could change a “conference” into a “meeting” under the amendment, and, like magic, lift federal restrictions. A clever Las Vegas venue could keep a professional on retainer simply to attend conferences – and poof you have yourself an exempt meeting. And, well, you know what happens in Vegas…

While critics argued that the GSA conference was an outlier, HHS was one of the biggest players in the conference travel spending gravy train. The CDC alone spent $45 million over six years (from 2000 through 2005) on conferences. Conference destinations included Spain, Thailand, Toronto, and Hollywood, FL.

HHS’s $19 million expenditure for conferences in 2014 demonstrates that even the federal reforms have allowed lots of conferencing on the taxpayers’ dime. Domestic destinations included New Orleans, Long Beach, Nashville, Orlando, Scottsdale, Austin, and L.A.

The trip to Scottsdale, AZ for the Indian Health Service’s (IHS) 2014 National Combined Council Meeting, an event for Tribal consultation and strengthening health care services, was conducted at the luxurious Four-Diamond Scottsdale resort, “where fun is limited only by your imagination.” The resort offers a 300,000 square foot casino, one of the largest in Arizona, and the resort’s buffet is prided as the best in Arizona according to Yahoo’s “The Best Buffet in Every State” list.

IHS wasn’t the only agency dining on taxpayer dollars in 2014. The Office of the Secretary spent five days at the Caribe Royale All-Suite Hotel and Convention Center, in Orlando, FL where “business and pleasure go hand in hand.” Located just a mile and a half from Walt Disney World, the Caribe Royale offers hotel guests poolside entertainment and movies under the stars, a 250,000 gallon free-form pool with a 75-foot waterslide, two “rejuvenating” whirlpools, and a cascading waterfall.

Taxpayers may need some time in a rejuvenating whirlpool if conference-spending reforms are weakened. While every agency can argue their conferencing is crucial to mankind, current procedures require justification as to why a certain conference might cost over $500,000, for example. Pretending a conference is a meeting to avoid those procedures, and cost restrictions, is an insult to taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill.