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Conference Controversy Is Awkward for Harry Reid

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Tom Coburn (above) is butting heads with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over reforms in the wake of the GSA travel scandal.

The Coburn amendment does not specifically single out resort cities as locations for government conferences but rather calls for more transparency in justifying event costs. Still, the amendment could cause heartburn for Reid if it makes it to the president’s desk because the proposal could be seen as away to shame agencies into choosing less glitzy locations than Las Vegas. However, backers of the amendment said places like Las Vegas could also win out because of their relative affordability.

Reid pushed in 2009 to allow government agency conferences to be held in Las Vegas and other resort towns, but he is not alone in Congress. Even House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), one of the most outspoken critics of the GSA last week, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in 2009 to “prohibit any department or agency of the federal government from establishing a travel or conference policy that takes into account the perception of a location as a resort or vacation destination in determining the location for an event.”

The other co-sponsors on that bill included Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley and Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who are running against each other for Nevada’s Senate seat, as well as left-wing icon and former Rep. Alan Grayson (Fla.), who is running for Congress again.

More important, however, is that the spotlight being shined on the GSA controversy, and the potential quiet passage of the Coburn amendment, highlights a growing concern about the relationship between Members and federal agencies.

Since imposing a formal earmark moratorium at the beginning of this Congress, Members have become more inclined to “phonemark,” or call agencies and their heads directly to try to secure projects for their districts. In attacking agency spending publicly — through hearings, media availabilities and television appearances — Members must walk a fine line between attacking government excess and making sure they maintain the relationships necessary to continue to bring pork home for their constituents.

“Historically, this has been one area where people sort of winked and nodded, partly because Members did not want to go after heads of agencies,” one GOP aide said of phonemarking.

Coburn’s staff indicated that the Senator has been working on this issue for six years, pointing to reports he issued about the Department of Justice in 2010 and similar efforts he made even during the George W. Bush administration. The GSA scandal — and the bicameral, bipartisan attention it has drawn — just gave the Oklahoma Republican a window to advance the bill, they say.

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