WASHINGTON -- The Internal Revenue Service, already under heavy fire, was subjected to another wave of outrage on Tuesday with the release of a Treasury Inspector General report showing it had spent close to $50 million on 225 employee conferences from 2010 through 2012.
Fifty. Million. Hard-Earned. Taxpayer. Dollars.
That sounds like a lot. In actuality, the IRS was hardly the most fiscally irresponsible conference host; other agencies were far worse.
A review of expenditures by different government departments and agencies reveals that several spent substantially more than the IRS did on conferences; not just during the period from 2010 to 2012, but in fiscal year 2012 alone.
Take the Department of Defense. In FY 2012, it spent $89 million on 295 conferences. The vast majority of these conferences were standard fare: leadership seminars at National Harbor, Md., ($3.7 million for 1,985 attendees), for example, or an education symposium in Las Vegas ($1.27 million for 1,759 people).
But others could raise eyebrows in the current political climate. From April 25 through April 27, 2012, the Defense Department hosted a conference for commanders, command chiefs and their spouses at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. The conference cost $204,671 with 151 people attending the "once-a-year opportunity" to "come together in a face-to-face environment to communicate, collaborate, and learn from the experiences of all attendees."
The Department of Defense also hosted five conferences that dealt with sexual-assault awareness, including an $113,670 event in early 2012 for 49 attendees in Houston, a $103,028 meeting that March in Willingen, Germany, and a summit that May in Leesburg, Va., that cost $527,028 for 479 attendees. Despite the efforts, sexual assault in the military continues to pose a major problem, with several reports of harassment and assault surfacing over the past few weeks and congressional hearings on the matter being held Tuesday.
On its website, DoD defended its conference spending by noting that the department is one of the "largest, most complex and most geographically dispersed organizations in the world." The average cost of a conference per person was just $30, the DoD added.
DoD does have the IRS beat in keeping per-head costs down. The tax agency spent $4.9 million on conferences in 2012. Divided by 90,280 employees, that amounts to $54 per person. (The IRS spent a far pricier $354 per employee on conferences in 2010).
Other agencies didn't do as well.
In FY 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services spent $56.1 million on 140 conferences (an average of roughly $670 per employee, calculated using the department's 2011 employee numbers). That's after HHS chopped $8 million from its conference costs, mainly by moving the events geographically closer.
The Department of Justice, meanwhile, spent $58.7 million on conferences in FY 2012, a $7 million or 11 percent reduction from FY 2011. The cost per employee (using DoJ's 2011 employee numbers) was roughly $524.
The Department of Veterans Affairs spent $72.7 million for 127 conferences in FY 2012. This included an October 2011 event in Napa Valley for the purpose of identifying "strategies to support the VA operating plans and major initiatives across the six healthcare systems." That conference cost $107,124 and had 88 attendees.
Several other departments spent more on conferences in FY 2012 than the IRS. They include the Energy Department ($5.2 million), the Department of Interior ($7.76 million) and the Department of Education ($10 million).
Departments that spent less than the IRS on conferences in FY 2012 include the Environmental Protection Agency ($3.6 million), Department of Transportation ($2.4 million), Housing and Urban Development ($1 million), the Treasury Department ($480,084) and the Department of Labor ($982,812).
All of these totals, it should be noted, come from spending on conferences that cost $100,000 or more. Anything smaller did not have to be reported under Office of Management and Budget guidelines.
So why the recent fascination with the IRS and its spending? For starters, more specific details about the conferences the tax agency hosted are available.
The Treasury Inspector General report revealed that for a $4 million conference in Anaheim, Calif., for 2,700 employees, the IRS contracted 15 outside speakers at a cost of $135,530. One keynote speaker was paid $27,500 and had his (or her -- the report did not specify) $2,500 first-class airfare paid for. The event featured line dance lessons, happiness experts, hotel upgrades and Star Trek spoofs.
The report concluded that IRS conference costs were not adequately monitored or tracked. It was, in short, embarrassing.
But the agency already seems to be curbing these habits, reducing its spending on meetings by 87 percent since 2010.
Then there is the bigger question of whether the conference expenditures are worth all the fuss they seem to be generating.
Conferences, after all, serve multiple constructive purposes. Moreover, they incur small expenses in the grand scheme of a department's budget. The $10 million spent by Department of Education on conferences was 0.015 percent of its $68.1 billion in discretionary appropriations in 2012. The $89 million spent by DoD was "one hundredth of one percent of our total spending," according to the department. The $56.1 million spent by HHS was 0.07 percent of its discretionary budget for FY 2012.
As for the IRS, the $37.6 million spent in 2010 was 0.3 percent of the agency's $12.2 billion budget that year, and the $4.9 million spent on conferences in 2012 was 0.04 percent of the agency's FY 2012 discretionary budget.