House votes to limit agency 'junkets' after GSA Vegas folly

The House voted Tuesday to cap federal agency spending on conferences at $500,000 per meeting and to limit the number of people who can attend.

Members approved the Government Spending Accountability Act, H.R. 4631, by voice vote after a quick debate in which members of both parties expressed support for the bill. The legislation is a reaction to the General Services Administration's (GSA) 2010 conference in Las Vegas, which cost more than $1 million and became the poster child for government waste.

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"I think we can all agree that all of this spending is outrageous and unacceptable," Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), the bill's sponsor, said during debate.

"The days of wasting taxpayer dollars on fancy junkets for government bureaucrats should soon be over," Walsh said. "I introduced the GSA act because as stewards of taxpayer dollars, it is our responsibility to ensure that they are not wasted on lavish conferences and posh junkets."

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said he supports the bill.

"The GSA incident tarnished the reputation of government workers who dedicate their lives to public service," Clay said. "This legislation … would prevent a few reckless and selfish individuals from engaging in activities that discredit the entire federal workforce."

Only one member rose to oppose the bill.

"I oppose this bill because it would make significant changes to federal employees' ability to travel to conferences and meetings," Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said. He argued that Congress should not put any limits on the ability of government workers to attend meetings, which he said help them improve their performance.

"We should be spending more on international conferences. We should be spending more on national conferences."

Holt also argued that Congress would not be well-served by only learning about issues through conference calls and said limiting conferences would hurt government workers in the same way. But Walsh said some limits are needed, given the growing federal deficit.

Under the bill, no single conference could cost more than $500,000 without congressional approval. The bill also requires all federal agencies to report to Congress on their travel expenses each quarter and limits spending on travel to 70 percent of their travel budget in 2010.

House passage sends the bill to the Senate, which could approve it in the coming weeks, given criticism that both Republicans and Democrats heaped on the GSA.

In another voice vote Tuesday, the House approved H.R. 538, the Government Customer Service Improvement Act. This bill would require federal agencies to create and live up to performance standards.

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