By Sandra I. Erwin
Defense industry scuttlebutters are blaming the General Services Administration for yet another government symposium biting the dust. In this case, it’s the Pentagon’s annual procurement conference that had been planned for May 21-24 in Orlando, Fla.
The event was postponed weeks before its scheduled date, stirring obvious speculation that this was another casualty of the GSA travel scandal.
Although Orlando is a familiar vacation destination, it is also a frequent venue for defense industry tradeshows and conferences. The area is a major defense-aerospace hub, home to several large military installations and dozens of top Pentagon contractors.
But the perception that government employees might be going to Disney World on taxpayer dime appears to have influenced the decision to put off the procurement conference, according to an industry source. He says military contractors are watching this development closely, as they worry that the brouhaha over GSA’s over-the-top 2010 gathering in Las Vegas could dampen future Pentagon conferences.
Defense Department spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin says the procurement conference is expected to reconvene later this year, date and location to be determined. The decision was not influenced by the GSA scandal but rather by a change in the procurement-training curriculum, she says. “The Directors of Defense Pricing and Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy have chosen to postpone this year's DoD Procurement Conference and Training Symposium. … We anticipate the conference will be scheduled later this year,” she writes in an email. “More time was needed to ensure that the training courses to be provided at the conference were aligned with the Department's Better Buying Power Initiatives.”
Industry insiders are not buying it. One executive says that a recent amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., which is expected to severely curtail government participation and increase oversight of government gatherings, already is having a chilling effect on the conference business, even though it might never become law.
Coburn attached the amendment to the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012, which the House is not likely to take up this year, as members want to avoid having to vote on shutting down post offices until after the November elections.
Regardless, “federal agencies already are starting to react as if the Coburn amendment is the law,” says the industry source.
Organizations that host conferences, including trade associations, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which worries about the economic impact of conference cutbacks, are pushing back. They are seeking to persuade Coburn and other lawmakers that an overreaction to GSA’s excess could have unintended, detrimental consequences, such as raising the cost of government conferences. Postponement of the Pentagon’s gathering in Orlando, for instance, could cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in hotel cancellation fees. If federal workers are going to be deterred from traveling out of town, the source says, they will have to conduct events in the Washington, D.C., area, which can be far more expensive than other cities. “A lot of organizations are raising concerns,” the industry source says.