Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2017

Trends in Federal Conference Spending

Federal spending on conferences hit a three-year high in fiscal 2016, according to a report by STR released in October. The total federal conference expenditure last year was $177,162,798 on 579 conferences, with an estimated 194,000 attendees. Whether the trend continues remains to be seen, as conferences put on by federal agencies and travel by federal employees to nongovernment conferences are both extremely vulnerable to political winds.

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For example, following the backlash over lavish conference spending by two federal agencies, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the Obama administration in 2012 issued a memorandum reducing government travel budgets by 30 percent. The memo also stipulated stricter protocols for federal employees to get permission for conference travel (including travel to nongovernmental conferences). It required all federal agencies to publicly list conferences costing more than $100,000.

The following year, many federal conferences were canceled, and others were much smaller. Travel to nongovernment meetings by federal employees took a nosedive. One result was a letter from 64 of the country’s leading associations, predominantly in the fields of science and technology, petitioning Congress to change the rules after they experienced sharp declines in attendance by federal employees at their conferences as well as erosion in the number of government speakers at their events. The new OMB oversight rules were inadvertently “restricting the open exchange of ideas among scientists and technologists and thereby adversely affecting national interests,” the petition said.

In the last month of the Obama administration, the OMB announced more relaxed guidelines for federal spending on conferences and conference travel. However, the Trump administration’s budget proposal for fiscal 2018 calls for historically deep cuts in budgets and staff at several major federal agencies and the elimination of many smaller ones. How that will affect government conference and travel spending remains to be seen. STR will release its report on 2017 federal conference spending in the second quarter of 2018.

In the meantime, a number of U.S. associations have protested President Trump’s various travel bans, saying, among other things, they inhibit international collaboration at meetings. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and dozens of other scientific and engineering societies sent a letter to President Trump in October in response to the latest travel ban (issued in September). It stated that his proclamation on visa and immigration policies poses “serious implications for diplomatic, humanitarian and national security interests in part because it weakens our U.S. science and engineering capacity.”

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The new ban, which, like previous ones, has been temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court pending further judicial review, limits travel from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen, as well as Chad, North Korea and Venezuela. Unlike previous versions, however, the new travel ban is not temporary. It will remain in place until the affected nations comply with stringent requirements for vetting their citizens before they can receive visas to enter the U.S. — Regina McGee

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