WASHINGTON – Outraged by lavish government conferences on the taxpayers' tab, the House easily approved a measure Wednesday to impose tough limits on future events and how much agencies can spend as well as to create a one-stop system for Americans to track where federal dollars go.
On a voice vote, the House backed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, known as the DATA Act. The legislation would establish uniform standards for all recipients to report federal money and set up a single website where average Americans could search for information on how government agencies, departments and other recipients spend federal funds.
"The American people have a right to know that taxpayer dollars are well-spent," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said during debate on the House floor.
Just weeks after revelations about the free-spending ways of officials from the General Services Administration, Issa and the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, added a provision that would limit the number of conferences held annually and the amount of money a government agency could spend on each event — no more than $500,000.
Spending on nonmilitary travel to attend a conference would be capped at 80 percent of fiscal 2010 levels. For international conferences, travel expenses would be limited to 50 employees based in the United States unless the secretary of state determines that attendance for additional employees is in the national interest.
Government watchdogs recently found that GSA officials in Western states went on taxpayer-financed junkets to Hawaii, South Pacific Islands and California's Napa Valley and Palm Springs, where they stayed at resort hotels and threw lavish parties. The loudest outcry was over a 2010 Las Vegas conference, which featured a clown, mind reader and a rap video making fun of the excessive spending. The event for 300 employees cost $823,000, according to the GSA's inspector general.
"It is good government, it is bipartisan, it is common sense," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said of the legislation. "If it were in place earlier, maybe it would have prevented the type of abuse we're talking about now."
The Senate passed a similar provision on government conferences on Tuesday and made it part of the postal bill. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has introduced a DATA bill in the Senate.
In a rare instance of bipartisanship, House Republicans and Democrats praised the legislation and said the new system would allow Americans and other groups to comb the website and find out how taxpayer dollars are being spent.
"American people are used to Googling for information," said Issa, who thanked Vice President Joe Biden for his involvement. Now they could track federal spending, Issa said.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he often gets calls in his office from constituents asking, "How much did this cost? It's difficult even for a member of Congress to answer. Outside groups should be able to research that."