On January 14, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing to “examine conference and travel spending across the federal government.” In his opening statement, Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) stated, “When properly planned and managed, conferences serve as a legitimate and often times necessary purpose of fostering collaboration and partnerships between government employees, state regulators, academia and industry.”
Following the 2012 General Services Administration (GSA) conference scandal, there has been significant Congressional scrutiny regarding the validity of government-sponsored conferences and the use of taxpayer dollars for federal employees to travel to and attend them. Officials from the Office of Management and Budget, GSA, and the Departments of Justice and Treasury testified. They noted the changes in procedures regarding spending for, approval of, and transparency disclosures since the OMB promulgated guidance in May 2012. Conferences and meetings held by outside organizations, such as the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), have also inadvertently been included in proposed measures to curb inappropriate federal spending.
During the hearing, both Democratic and Republican Senators remarked on the need for more information to determine the benefits of federal attendance at conferences and federal travel.
In a statement submitted for the hearing record, AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, pointed out that “the AICPA invites members of Congress and federal officials – political appointees and career federal employees – to participate because of their expertise regarding the current status of laws and regulations affecting the work performed by the accounting profession, as auditors of public company financial statements, preparers of tax returns and providers of other services.”
Further, Melancon emphasizes the importance of federal attendance at professional conferences and meetings and the benefits derived by both government and private sector attendees. “The AICPA believes that the exchange of information that occurs between regulators and CPAs – whether federal officials are speakers or participants at conferences – has significant positive benefits creating transparency and understanding of the government’s regulatory impact on business and the public at large,” he said.
Committee Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) expressed concern that “once a spotlight is no longer shining” on the issue, there is a question of whether government agencies will go back to spending improperly on conferences and travel or whether legislation is needed to ensure that the Administration’s actions are required permanently.
While neither supporting nor opposing legislation, Melancon said, “The AICPA is concerned that any actions that unduly limit federal government officials from attending meetings and conferences, such as those held by the AICPA, will have a significant negative impact on government. Federal employees who are themselves professional CPAs, lawyers, doctors, and scientists should be encouraged to maintain their licenses and technical expertise to ensure they fulfill their duties competently and effectively.”