Want a free trip to Greece? Well, sign up to work at the Department of Commerce, and you might get a freebie. It sent 31 staffers to Greece for the International Sea Turtle Symposium. Congress has nothing against turtles but finds it mighty suspicious that staffers took 81 days of vacation then. To some Congress members, it sounds like part of a governmentwide pattern of taxpayer-subsidized holidays.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says, "Many who attend the conferences then use annual leave to stick around for a few extra days or weeks, essentially charging taxpayers the cost of a plane ticket for their personal vacations."
Congressional investigators found that bureaucrats dug up reasons to visit other pleasant spots, such as the Virgin Islands, Paris, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Switzerland, Australia and the Fiji Islands. They found that federal workers lobby their bosses to send them to places with resorts, beaches and casinos. Eight hundred and forty-two FEMA employees attended a conference in Reno last April at a cost of $1.5 million.
Coburn, chairman of a subcommittee investigating travel, says, "The first two days were all optional sessions. The conference Web site boasts the many pools, casinos, restaurants, go-kart tracks and shopping available for hotel guests."
Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a private group, tells ABC News, "It seems too often that the go/no-go decision on conferences is all about the location and less about the information that they're supposed to be getting at the conference."
Spokesmen from federal agencies argue that many conferences are worthwhile and involve hard work. Congress agrees, up to a point, but wonders why spending on conferences has ballooned 70 percent over the past six years. At the Department of Education, it's up 261 percent. At the Treasury Department, conference spending is up 96 percent, including travel for 11 employees sent to a series of wine seminars in California. Of particular concern to Congress is the fact that conference expenses are rising at twice the increase in overall government spending.
Taxpayer groups wonder whether with today's technology it's necessary to send so many people to so many places. "There are many instances where videoconferencing either for part or all of a conference or discussion could save a lot of money," says Ellis.
Federal agencies assure Congress they are trying to cut down on expensive travel by relying on technology or by simply attending fewer conferences. But with travel costs going up each year, congressional investigators are not so sure. Over the past five years, the government has spent more than $1.5 billion on travel to conferences.