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Analysis: Ninth Circuit Conference Draws Further Fire To Federal Travel Budgets

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Alex Bolton, senior staff writer with The Hill newspaper.

Business travel for federal workers has come under a lot of scrutiny these days. Most of the attention has focused on executive branch employees — following an $800,000 conference in Las Vegas for some General Services Administration staffers, that some saw as extravagant. Now some Republican Senators are looking into a conference planned for staff of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Rebecca Blatt spoke with The Hill's Alex Bolton about the conference and what it could mean for the federal workforce.

What are lawmakers objecting to for this new conference?

"The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has planned a conference in Hawaii that Republican lawmakers estimate could cost up to $1 million. And what's really raised their ire is the invitation for federal employees to be engaging in recreational activities like sport fishing, yoga, zumba dancing at the conference."

The Ninth Circuit does include Hawaii and the Ninth Circuit says activities must be paid by employees. How do lawmakers respond to that?

"The argument they make is that there are only four judgeships allocated to Hawaii. There are many more judgeships allocated to California. So they argue that it would make more sense to have this conference in California. And while it's true that all recreational activities they participate in they have to pay for themselves, but Republicans say they wouldn't be there if it wasn't for taxpayers paying $200 or more per night on hotel rooms. The per diem allowance in Hawaii is pretty high, because Hawaii is an expensive state. They also object to what they call the lighter activities on the schedule, which include an ice cream social funded by taxpayers and a cocktail reception. At a time when there is a massive budget deficit, lawmakers are much less tolerant of these kind of expenditures."

Which lawmakers in particular are being vocal and what are they hoping to do about the conference?

"It's Sen. Chuck Grassley from Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The other is Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee. Right now, they're trying to get more information. They want to know the size and scale of the conference, and they want to scale it back. They're also looking at the past several conferences to see how the costs compare. Ultimately, there could be legislation through the appropriations process that put a ban on future conferences in Hawaii, perhaps. The argument they make is that the judiciary branch right now is suffering from a lack of funding. In fact, the Chairwoman of the Judicial Conferences Budget Committee was quoted by the Wall Street Journal recently saying the federal judiciary is on the cusp of a financial crisis. So lawmakers say that it doesn't make sense to be spending up to $1 million on a conference in Hawaii if that's the case."

How could this affect efforts to cut back on travel for other federal employees?

"This could create more support for the proposal by Florida Republican lawmaker Dennis Ross, who has introduced legislation to slash federal agency travel budgets by 50 percent for the next two fiscal years. Headlines about the GSA conference in Las Vegas and now this judicial conference in Hawaii could create more political support for Ross' legislation.

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