Inspector general hits DOE for failing to cut travel for contractors

The Energy Department (DOE) failed to comply with a White House directive to reduce the travel costs incurred by its contractors, which reached $300 million over a six-year period, according to a recent report by the department's inspector general.

While DOE has cut spending for its federal employees, the report said the department has largely ignored the contractors who account for 85 percent of DOE’s travel spending. The department spent $360 million total on foreign spending in the six-year period from fiscal 2007 to 2012.

“Despite the sizable expenditure of Federal funds, the Department had not made a concerted effort to reduce contractor international travel costs,” DOE Inspector General Gregory Friedman wrote in the report issued last week.

President Obama told federal agencies to shed travel expenses in a November 2011 executive order. 

In that order, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) called for a 30 percent reduction in foreign travel spending for each agency. The report said DOE improperly interpreted the OMB requirement to cover only federal employees, and not contractors.

In response to the audit, DOE agreed to extend the 30 percent reduction to contractors, which the audit suggested saves DOE $15 million annually.

DOE did cut travel to $62 million this year, down from $69 million, the department said in comments included in the report.

Still, the department needed to keep a robust travel budget to maintain national security initiatives, Ingrid Kolb, DOE's director for the Office of Management, said in comments attached to the report.

Kolb noted DOE has strengthened its role in international nuclear security under Obama, which has put an emphasis on travel. 

She also said DOE spent about $4.5 million on contractor travel in 2011 to assist Japan in response to the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown.

Kolb said DOE has improved collaboration with other nations, bought less expensive non-refundable plane tickets and limited conference attendance to cut costs. 

But she noted that “the location of these facilities around the globe necessitates frequent international travel by our scientists.”

Congress has also pushed agencies to slash travel spending in response to the General Services Administration spending $823,000 on a 2010 Las Vegas conference.

That scandal ignited criticism from both sides of the aisle, helping usher the Government Spending Accountability Act (H.R. 4631) through the House with only one dissenting vote.

That bill would prevent spending more than $500,000 on a conference without congressional approval. It would also require federal agencies to report travel expenses to Congress each quarter, and cap travel spending at 70 percent of agencies’ 2010 travel budgets.

The bill is currently in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.