Sometimes it’s the little things Congress does that tell the biggest stories. So it is with a recent 82-14 vote in the Senate for a proposal to prohibit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from using federal tax dollars to pay for conferences and banquets hosted by the agency or attended by its employees. What sparked this vote was news that NOAA spent $46,000 in federal funds to wine and dine government regulators and their favored scientists and commercial fishermen. The event was a meeting of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a NOAA-backed nonprofit tasked with helping the Chesapeake Bay recover its oyster population. Evidently, a sumptuous evening of hors d’oeuvre, martinis, crab and filet mignon is essential to completing the task.
But one Senate vote inspired by media reports of a single wasteful event doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story of how federal bureaucrats have for years spent billions of tax dollars traveling to official meetings at far-flung locations that just happen to be choice vacation spots. Even now, a NOAA Fishery Management Council is scheduled to meet in August at the swank Carambola Beach Resort & Golf Club on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Other NOAA panels met in Hawaii in January 2005 and Florida in February 2006.
Incredibly, NOAA is far from the worst offender. An investigation last year by the federal financial management subcommittee then-chaired by Sen. Tom Coburn estimated that federal agencies have spent more than $2 billion on meetings and travel just since 2000. And the rate of increase in this spending is spiraling upward: By 246 percent at the Department of Education, 175 percent at the Department of Agriculture and 142 percent at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among others. Fortunately, Coburn’s investigation continues even though Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., succeeded the Oklahoman as subcommittee chairman when the Democrats took over the Senate in November. A new report on the probe is expected in a month or so.