A Senate subcommittee has been holding federal agencies’ feet to the fire about expenses for conference travel.
The Department of Education and other executive-branch agencies were asked to defend their travel spending policies during a hearing earlier this month of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, government information, and international security.
The Education Department’s annual spending on travel has increased 261 percent since 2000, according to the subcommittee, which is led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Michell Clark, the department’s assistant secretary for management, told the panel on Sept. 14 that conferences and travel only made up a small fraction of the department’s total budget—$6.3 million out of $56 billion in discretionary spending in fiscal 2006.
Department staff members tend to travel in small groups, Mr. Clark said. “Seventy-six percent of the conferences sponsored or attended by department staff between October 2004 and May 2006 involved fewer than three department employees,” he said.
The recent conferences have been spurred by the need to explain policies stemming from the No Child Left Behind Act, he added.
“Much of our work entails person-to-person contact with our numerous state and local partners and stakeholders,” he said.
The conferences “help grant recipients avoid missteps that could lead to costly program fraud, waste, and abuse,” he added.
The hearing included testimony from representatives of 10 other federal agencies, including the departments of the Interior, Justice, and Labor. All said they were relying more on technology to reduce the need for employees to travel.
Still, Sen. Coburn said, he was disturbed to learn about some conferences, such as a $722,000 trip for 125 Interior Department employees, and a series of California wine seminars for 11 Department of the Treasury workers that was paid for by the federal government.
“It’s really not about conferences and travel,” Sen. Coburn said at the hearing, which is the second he has convened this year on federal agency travel. “It’s really about [whether] the American people trust us to be prudent in a time when we’re spending $400 billion of their kids’ money that we don’t have.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week