WASHINGTON -- With its kitschy crooners, blackjack tables and luxury hotel rooms, Las Vegas is a popular destination for trade shows, tourists and newlyweds.
But no longer, it seems, with bureaucrats.
Federal agencies have all but abandoned Las Vegas and other resort destinations -- including Hawaii and Orlando -- for government meetings and conferences, following a number of high-profile agency travel scandals and budget cutbacks.
The government spent just $92,736 on Las Vegas hotel rooms in fiscal year 2013, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal spending data.
That's down from a high of nearly $2.5 million in 2010, the year the General Services Administration spent $800,000 on a lavish conference at a Las Vegas resort featuring taxpayer-funded parties for top agency officials, $95-a-plate dinners and -- for entertainment -- clowns and mind readers.
Public outrage over revelations about that trip led to follow-up investigations into exorbitant travel spending by federal agencies: A 2011 Internal Revenue Service conference in Anaheim, Calif., and two Department of Veterans Affairs conferences in Orlando that same year.
Nevada's congressional delegation says the Gambling Capital of the World is being unfairly blacklisted because of the excesses of some federal agencies. They've introduced a bill that would prohibit agencies from discriminating against a city "because the location is perceived to be a resort or vacation destination." The bill also has bipartisan support from representatives from Florida and Hawaii.
"It's not just Las Vegas," said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who represents southern Clark County and is one of the co-sponsors. "Orlando and Anaheim face similar issues because they're considered a resort destination and not just a meeting city."
He said Las Vegas can be more economical than less glitzy destinations because the federal per diem -- the maximum the government will pay for a hotel room -- is only $92 a night. Washington, D.C., can be as much as $224 a night. And hotels are often willing to negotiate even lower rates during weeknights and in the off-season because of high vacancy rates.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority wouldn't comment on the issue, saying it doesn't track spending on government-sponsored conferences. "While government meetings are a portion of our meeting mix, we don't have breakouts on that particular segment," said spokeswoman Dawn Christensen.
But federal spending data tells a clear story: In an era of budget cuts, overall federal spending on hotel rooms -- an incomplete but clear measure of travel spending -- is down 27% since 2011, when it hit a high of $308 million.
Resort cities have been hit hardest. Contracts for Las Vegas hotel rooms are down 81%. Honolulu is down 88%. Orlando is down 100%.
The big winner over the same time period: Washington, D.C. It saw federal spending on hotel rooms skyrocket from $2.7 million in 2010 to $57.5 million in 2013.
The Obama Administration started shying away from Las Vegas even before the scandals. In 2009, a Justice Department memo instructed that meetings "are not to be held in cities that are vacation destinations/spa/resort/gambling." The Department of Agriculture also urged planners to select "a non-resort location," according to The Wall Street Journal.
"That's a perception issue, and so if your budget has been cut, you may rethink the destinations you're talking to and make sure they have the right business tone," said Deborah Sexton, president of the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association. "It's an unfair perception. Assuming that the meeting has proper objectives, it doesn't matter where it is. And some environments drive more people to attend, and if that's part of the objective -- to get the maximum amount of people there -- some destinations are more popular than others."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has led the congressional investigations into travel expenses, said it's the wasteful spending -- not the destination -- that he's most concerned about.
"I have no problem with a conference in Orlando," he said at a hearing in October. "No problem with the conference in Las Vegas where GSA got in trouble. It's the spending and the amount of spending that goes on."
President Obama himself has used Las Vegas as a metaphor for reckless spending, drawing protests from Democrats in Congress.
Just three weeks into his first term, Obama said bankers who get federal bailouts "can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime." A year later, he said, "You don't blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you're trying to save for college."
Oscar Goodman, then the Democratic mayor of Las Vegas, called those comments "outrageous."
On his next visit, Obama cut his losses. "Let me set the record straight: I love Las Vegas," Obama said.