GSA Conferences Scandal Affects Participation of Federal Scientists and Engineers in Society Conferences

By Chris J. Brantley

Revelations that the federal General Services Administration (GSA) spent more than $823K on a Western Region Conference held in Las Vegas in 2010 prompted a congressional investigation, introduction of legislation, and issuance of an executive branch directive on agency conference spending that is significantly impacting the participation of federal scientists and engineers in society conferences.

GSA is the federal agency responsible for federal acquisition policies and managing federal properties.  In investigating the Western Regions Conference, Congress identified a pattern of lavish spending by GSA on conferences dating back several administrations.  Currently, 77 different GSA conferences are under review.

As soon as the scandal broke, Republican leaders in the House and Senate moved to attach conference provisions to current legislation moving in each body.  In the House, Congressman Darryl Issa offered a conferences amendment to his Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2011 (H.R. 2146), or DATA Act,  that would require the a 20 percent cut in federal spending on conferences, and restrict federal agencies to sending personnel to only one non-agency-sponsored conference per year.  Similar language was appended by Senator Tom Coburn to the 21st Century Postal Services Act (S. 1789) in the Senate.  Both bills were approved in their respective bodies on 25 April 2012, but have not seen action in the opposite chambers since referral.

The Issa and Coburn amendments prompted a response by the association community, warning that their provisions would have “a chilling effect on government employees’ participation in non-governmental meetings and conferences.”   In a joint letter to Congress organized by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), IEEE joined several hundred other associations that called on Congress to limit the restrictions to federally sponsored conferences only, and to remove the restriction limiting support to one conference per agency per year.

At this juncture, IEEE-USA also joined the fray, communicating its concerns to the Senate.  In a 9 May 2012 letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman, sponsor of the Postal Services Act,  2012 IEEE-USA President Jim Howard cautioned that “limiting federal participation in scientific and technical conferences would not only adversely impact the ability of those federal agencies to advance their critical missions in such S&T dependent fields as health information, cybersecurity, defense and energy, but would also undermine the overall federal effort to promote innovation, economic growth and continued U.S. technological competitiveness.”

Fueled by election year politics, the GSA scandal continued to drive high levels of congressional interest, even as support for passage of the Data and the Postal Services Acts waned.  Rep.  Joe Walsh introduced new legislation, specifically targeted at the conferences issue.  The GSA Act of 2012 (H.R. 4631) proposed a 30 percent cut in federal reimbursements for travel through 2017; outlined $100K and $500K approval thresholds for federal expenditures on specific conferences (with requirements of high-level reviews and waivers); and imposed a public access requirement on all materials delivered by federal attendees at conferences (e.g. papers, video, etc.).   The spending cap in the GSA Act would extend through 2017.


The Walsh bill was reported out of committee on 27 June 2012, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor indicated plans to bring it to the House floor under a suspension of the rules prior to Congress’s August 2012 break.  However, the press of other legislation delayed the House vote on the GSA Act until September 2012, when it passed by voice vote on 11 Sept 2012.   The bill was referred to the Senate, which quickly adjourned for the elections, but the legislation remains live (along with the DATA and Postal Act bills), as of this writing.

In an attempt to head off legislation and show that it was managing the issue effectively, the White House issued a management directive through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on 11 May 2012.  Entitled “Promoting Efficient Spending to Support Agency Operations,” the OMB Directive called on agencies to reduce spending on conference-related reimbursements by 30 percent, and established spending caps with an agency waiver process for federal conference participation costs totaling $100K, and an “Exceptional Circumstances” waiver for conferences with federal costs of $500K or more.  OMB defined conferences to include any “meeting, retreat, seminar, symposium or event that involves attendee travel.”  Covered expenses include “all direct and indirect conference costs paid by the government, whether paid directly by agencies or reimbursed by agencies to travelers or others associated with the conference, but do not include funds paid under Federal grants to grantees.”

As federal agencies began to implement the OMB directive, impacts on various science and engineering society technical conferences began to manifest, from withdrawal of federal exhibitors, to resignation of federal employees serving in conference leadership positions, to reductions in conference attendance.   Some association conferences, such as the annual meeting of the American Astronautical Society, were so severely impacted that they were canceled.  IEEE conferences, both large and small, have been affected in various ways, from Supercomputing and MilCom to the IEEE Nuclear Science Symposium and Medical Imaging Conference.

IEEE-USA and other affected science and engineering societies began collaborating on the issue in July 2012, sharing concerns with OMB and with Congress, and working to educate legislators on the value that the federal government and federal scientists and engineers derive from participation in technical conferences.

In August 2012, IEEE-USA joined with the Association of Computing Machinery, the Computing Research Association and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (all co-sponsors of Supercomputing 2012) in a communication to the President’s S&T Advisor John Holdren and to Congress, urging that recognized scientific, technical and educational meetings and meetings of national and international standards bodies be exempted from the federal restrictions.  The letter was highlighted in a New York Times piece (23 Oct. 2012), in which ACM President Vint Cerf noted “the inability of government researchers and program managers to participate in these conferences is actually very damaging.”

IEEE-USA joined with other science and engineering societies in endorsing a 5 Oct. 2012 letter by the Materials Research Society to Congressional leaders cautioning against onerous restrictions on travel to professional meetings.  According to MRS:


“Unlike many professions, the nature of scientists’ work requires them to share research findings with their peers and colleagues at scientific conferences and meetings. This peer collaboration process is fundamental to scientific advances and is unlikely to be achieved without this personal interaction. The impact is seen in national security, energy, health sciences, and many other fields of endeavor from which our country has benefited over many years.”

More recently, the IEEE-USA released a position statement on Participation in Professional Conferences By Government Scientists and Engineers. The statement reminds federal recipients of existing White House directives, reinforcing the importance of professional development of federal scientists and engineers through participation in professional conferences.  And the position highlights the value of conference participation as an efficient way to advance innovation and support agency missions, as well as a valuable resource for the professional development of the participating federal scientists.

In its statement, IEEE-USA recommends that OMB clarify its definition of meetings, so that it does not cover meetings involving Federal Advisory Committees, National Academies meetings, standards-setting bodies, and official international engagements.  It also urges the administration to exempt professional science and engineering conferences from its travel and conference restrictions.

For Additional Reading

Postal Reform Act (S. 1789) (Sec. 501a4)

DATA Act (H.R. 2146) (Sec. 308)

GSA Act (H.R. 4631)

OMB Directive M-12-12 (May 11)

Chris J. Brantley is IEEE-USA’s managing director in Washington, D.C.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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