What happened with the GSA in Vegas stymies federal workers

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Originally posted on washingtonpost.com By Lisa Rein

When federal employees get together for training and meetings, fancy lunches aren't on the menu anymore. In fact, food of any kind -- tuna fish sandwiches, green salad, oatmeal cookies -- can no longer be served by the government. Even coffee is off-limits.

Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies say they can no longer travel to academic conferences to present their research.

And mental-health workers at military hospitals say they are in danger of losing their licenses because they can't attend refresher courses.

Three years after the Obama administration clamped down on travel and training in response to the uproar over a Las Vegas conference where hundreds of federal workers partied for four days at taxpayer expense, the restrictions are taking an unanticipated toll. Employees at a wide range of agencies say the rules are gumming up the machinery of government.

While the government has not released data on how much agencies spent on travel and conferences before the crackdown, White House officials say the restrictions have saved close to $3?billion and ensured that taxpayers are not paying for more boondoggles. But these officials are also acknowledging that agencies have become too rigid.

Last month, the White House issued new instructions giving agencies more flexibility "to reduce burdens and streamline the process" for employees to travel and attend conferences, said Jamal Brown, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. These changes include easing the spending caps on some "mission critical" travel and allowing employees to seek pre-approval for a list of conferences, rather than before each one.

The rules have proved exasperating for Betsy Shatzer, who does the unglamorous yet vital work of overseeing utility contracts for the Army at Maryland's Fort Meade, home to the National Security Agency. Soon, she may no longer be able to dispose of the sewage.

Shatzer has to be recertified, and in the past, a one-week $500 training conference at an area college took care of that. But the government now requires three months' notice, and the group that runs the training announces its programs only two months ahead of time.

So to keep the wastewater flowing, Shatzer says she will have to drive around the state, taking day-long training courses in various locations with the government picking up the tab for the rental car, hotels and meals.

"It's going to cost them three times as much," she said. "My boss is red-faced when he thinks about it."

As inspector general at the General Services Administration, Brian D. Miller cracked open the story of his agency's extravagances at its 2010 Las Vegas conference, which featured a mind-reader, after-hours parties in loft suites and a video of a bare-chested executive soaking in a hot tub. Now, Miller is warning that the pendulum has swung too far.

"You have an outrageous case and all of a sudden you have a blanket law," said Miller, who left the GSA last year and now works at the Navigant business consulting firm. "It's kind of a bureaucratic problem."

Amid the fallout of the GSA scandal and other excesses at conferences held by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service, the White House hurriedly directed agencies in 2012 to slash most travel and conference budgets by 30?percent. The OMB imposed spending caps, and attendance at official gatherings outside the office, even just down the street, can require extensive paperwork and multiple levels of approval.

Congress, meanwhile, required every agency to report details of nearly all conferences to its inspector general.

When President Obama and Congress allowed the automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration to take effect in 2013, the travel restrictions were cemented in place.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, said this week that the rules were necessary to "protect the agencies from themselves."

"I don't think [the White House] had much choice," he said. "If you didn't take some action to assure people that their tax money was going to be wisely spent, it would have been worse."

In a statement, the OMB's Brown said,"Wasteful spending is unacceptable."

At the same time, he said, "it is critical we continue rooting out waste while recognizing the need for our nation's civil servants, who are in many cases the world's leading scientists, to have opportunities to engage their counterparts outside of the federal government, share best practices, and enhance their overall ability to deliver upon their missions and breakthrough advancements in medicine and science."

At the FDA, a young food scientist said with dismay that he has not been able to present his work at conferences, stalling his career and limiting the benefits of research done at public expense. He has been reluctant even to apply to the conferences for the chance, because he's afraid his agency will keep him from attending.

"I don't want to be this guy who gets accepted for a talk and then has to say, 'I can't do it,'?" the scientist said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting his chances at advancement. He said he has already delayed applying for a promotion because he has yet to present his work at a conference.

At the naval hospital in Camp Pendleton near San Diego, officials have decided that only physicians can attend annual conferences. Therapists and social workers say they're left out in the cold.

"If you're not an MD in Navy medicine, it's literally impossible to go," said a marriage and family therapist at the hospital who requested anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter and feared reprisal from supervisors.

In the past, he earned continuing education credits required to keep his state license by attending the annual meeting of his professional association. Instead, his supervisors are urging online training. But, he said, that's no substitute when dealing with patients who did multiple deployments in combat zones.

"There are still so many treatment issues we need to be up to date on," he said.

The fallout from the Las Vegas scandal has meant that conferences in Reno, Orlando and other prominent tourist destinations are now largely off-limits. Their hotel rooms may be relatively affordable -- but the optics are costly.

This has created a repeated predicament for Deanna Lyons, who organizes training for judges with funding from the Justice Department. Her group, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, is based in Reno.

Last year, Lyons was told that the training conference could not be held as proposed at a Reno hotel because it has a casino, she said. So she rented buses to drive the judges to a conference room at the University of Nevada, although the hotel offered free meeting space and had better audiovisual equipment. Lyons donated the coffee.

Another time, she said, she had to nix the conference altogether.

Nevada's congressional delegation got language inserted into the government funding bill adopted in December to bar agencies from blacklisting resort properties and requiring officials to seek the best value when deciding where to hold a conference.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), lead sponsor of the Protecting Resort Cities From Discrimination Act, said the government has unfairly penalized tourist destinations, which offer some of the most affordable hotel rooms in the country.

"The scandals, in my view, were lapses in judgment by managers who happened to work for the federal government," Amodei said. "No one at the Bellagio forced them to pay $50 a head for brie."

Some federal managers are keeping meetings small so they don't trigger the requirement for multiple approvals, although that means fewer employees are benefiting. And they don't dare call it a conference, or it won't get the green light.

Many agencies are turning to videoconferencing and online training. The Department of Housing and Urban Development's broadcast team, for example, has doubled its use of outside contractors to help provide training. "You have a lot more people leveraging technology to reach people versus going to a conference somewhere," spokesman Jereon Brown said.

But other federal employees are skeptical. "You can't see your students or read their body language," said Shawn Kennedy, a tax lien and seizure expert for the IRS in Terre Haute, Ind. He has found the virtual classroom frustrating as he trains revenue officers on recent court-mandated changes to the tax lien process. To keep their attention, he said, "you end up trying to entertain people rather than instruct them."

Three years after the restrictions were put in place, some agencies continue to run afoul of the rules requiring approvals for travel and have had to pay hefty penalties for last-minute cancellations.

The Coast Guard, for example, had not gotten the go-ahead from its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, before signing up 85 budget analysts to fly to Seattle for the annual meeting last May of the American Society of Military Comptrollers, which provides continuing education, officials said.

Days before the event, DHS nixed the travel plans for 37 of the analysts. The Coast Guard, agency officials said, was stuck with $20,100 in cancellation fees.

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