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Conference Controversy Is Awkward for Harry Reid

Coburn’s Proposal to Boost Oversight of Agency Conferences Could Cause Headache for 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.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is putting forward a government conference travel reform and oversight measure, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is likely to let it pass — but quietly.

In the wake of the scandal involving a lavish 2010 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas, Reid has been one of the staunchest defenders of Nevada tourism. And Coburn, for years, has been a top champion in the fight against government waste. Now, the two Senators’ interests are butting heads in a debate that underscores the tricky politics of Congressional relationships with federal agencies.

“We have this problem today, but not because of the GSA, because of ourselves, because we refused to do the hard work of passing requirements that hold federal agencies accountable,” Coburn said in a floor statement late last week. “It makes for great press and great TV when we stand aghast at what is obviously wasteful spending by one agency, but that accomplishes nothing other than advancing the political careers of my colleagues.”

Coburn’s amendment will get a vote as part of an agreement reached between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the pending postal reform legislation. But the measure likely will not get an actual roll-call vote. Instead, the amendment has been flagged as one that leaders would like to see passed by an unrecorded voice vote. Given the GSA scandal, the amendment would likely pass overwhelmingly anyway, but leaders have long used voice votes to pass amendments that they would like to nix in conference committee later.

A Reid spokesman indicated that a voice vote only means the proposal is on track for approval.

The Oklahoma Republican’s proposal would slash the total amount spent on conferences annually by 20 percent and cap the total cost of individual events at $500,000. The amendment also would require federal agencies to post summaries of spending on conferences supported or attended by those agencies every three months on their websites. The disclosures would have to include an explanation of how the conference advanced the agency’s mission, the total attendance of the conference, the location of the conference, a justification of that location in terms of cost efficiency, dates and the number of federal and nonfederal employees who attended the event on the agency’s tab.

The measure would allow nonfederal organizations to provide financial support for conferences, but it would require disclosure of those sources to “ensure that there is no conflict of interest resulting from support received from each,” according to a bill summary of the amendment.

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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