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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is making only two trips to Afghanistan this year instead of four.

File photo by Jason Reed • pool via New York Times,

Sequestration sharply curtails government travel

  • Article by: MICHAEL D. SHEAR and RON NIXON
  • New York Times
  • August 18, 2013 - 9:07 PM

– Geological visits to monitor volcanoes in Alaska have been scaled back. The defense secretary is traveling to Afghanistan two times a year instead of the usual four. For the first time in nearly three decades, NASA pulled out of the National Space Symposium, in Colorado Springs, even though representatives from France, Germany and China all made the trip.

Five months after gridlock in Washington triggered the deep spending cuts known as sequestration, much of the U.S. government is grounded.

Most government travel budgets have been cut this year by 30 percent, the result of an administration directive forcing managers to make difficult policy decisions about whom to send, where to send them and for how long. The result, agency officials say, is a government that cannot conduct essential business and is ­embarrassing itself abroad.

“We talk about being a leader in space exploration,” said Elliot H. Pulham, chief executive of the Space Foundation, which sponsored the NASA-free symposium in Colorado. “But it’s hard to be a leader if you don’t show up.”

Not necessarily, say budget hawks like Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “Hopefully what you will have is more sound judgment at these agencies about what is critical travel and what isn’t,” Coburn said. “There is no question that federal employees should have some travel and go to some conferences, but most of it has nothing to do with their jobs. It’s a perk.”

Furloughs because of impasse

Either way, the grounding of so many federal officials is one of the more tangible examples of the failure by Congress and President Obama to reach an accommodation on how to reduce the nation’s debt. Many workers are experiencing furloughs because of the impasse. It may soon get worse, as Obama and lawmakers brace for another standoff in the coming months over how to cut spending.

For now, thousands of employees at scores of ­agencies are staying put, deskbound by the shrunken travel budgets. Many workers are under orders to trade in plane reservations for car rentals and even bus tickets. The reductions are hitting all pockets of the bureaucracy, including those where travel is considered essential.

In the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, for example, there is money to send a negotiator to only one of 41 countries, Ukraine, accused of violating U.S. intellectual property rights.

One measure of the decline is the airline industry in Washington, where travel representatives report a steep falloff in the number of people flying on discounted government rates. Intercity bus services like Megabus have meanwhile seen a jump in ridership between Washington and New York.

The impact goes far beyond the elimination of embarrassing junkets like the more than $800,000 the General Services Administration spent on a clown, a comic, a mind reader and airfare for 300 government workers for a retreat near Las Vegas in 2010. Officials have urged agencies to cut travel budgets “in a way that protects mission to the extent practicable and continues to support critical government functions such as national security, safety inspections, and law enforcement,” said Steve Posner, the associate director for strategic planning and communications at the Office of Management and Budget.

But Posner added: “The depth and breadth of the cuts required by sequestration mean that is not possible in all cases, and cuts are having an impact on agencies’ ability to carry out their mission.”

A July report by the U.S. Travel Association, made up of companies in the travel industry, found that government participation in meetings and conferences was vital to making government efficient and effective. The report found that canceling government participation in these events carried significant costs and undermined important functions of government.

Scientists hit hard

Among those hit hardest by the cuts to travel budgets are government scientists, who often travel to academic conferences as part of their jobs. In some cases, they are now turning to video conference calls or online Webinars to replace the in-person visits.

In February, the Defense Department canceled a health systems conference where thousands of military medical professionals gather to share research and learn the latest treatment techniques.

In March, the National Space Symposium went on as scheduled — just without NASA.

Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey sent 75 scientists to the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America. This year, the survey withdrew all but 14, nearly shutting down the Salt Lake City conference in the process.

Seventeen research papers were withdrawn because their authors could not be there to present them.

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