State, Local Government Groups Fear Impact of Conference Restrictions

Federal legislation could prohibit agencies from attending multiple conferences hosted by one organization.
by | May 18, 2012

Organizations representing state and local government say a new provision working its way through Congress could drastically change the way they interact with federal government officials.

A proposal under consideration in both the House and Senate, no federal agency could spend money attending multiple conferences put on by the same organization in a single year.

Ostensibly, once a single employee from an agency attends a particular association's event, other employees from the same agency would be prohibited from attending the organization's other events for the rest of the year. That's problematic, some say, because most of the "Big 7" organizations representing state and local government host at least two major events each year, plus many smaller events throughout the country.

Federal officials often attend those conferences to serve as keynote speakers, network with local officials, and provide guidance and insight during smaller workshops and panel discussions.

“What we don’t want to see happen is agencies all of a sudden get hesitant about interaction with their partners,” says Michael Bird, senior federal affairs counsel at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hundreds of other organizations that claim they benefit from face-to-face interaction with federal officials oppose the move as well.

Jason Jordan, who oversees federal relations for the American Planning Association, said the policy could also have the unintended consequence of preventing some federal workers from getting the training they need to maintain professional certifications. Much of that training happens at conferences.

The proposed rules come in the wake of the General Services Administration scandal in which officials spent lavish sums on a Las Vegas conference. The language that concerns the organizations is part of H.R. 2146, the DATA Act, which proposes changes to how the government reports spending data. That legislation cleared the House last month. It's also included in S. 1789, which proposes changes to the postal system. That bill passed in the Senate last month too.

Other provisions of those bills are designed to curtain travel expenses and bring more transparency to government travel and conference spending.

Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget announced earlier this month its own rules designed to rein in such spending. Those policies put caps on some types of expenditures.

OMB's rules don't include the same restriction in the House and Senate legislation that has riled the state and local government organizations.

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