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Senator: Travel Paperwork Overhaul Could Save $1 Billion a Year

March 8, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government could save $1 billion a year in travel costs if it modernized authorization procedures, Sen. William Cohen said Friday as a Senate panel reviewed efforts to cut such expenses.

A chart outlining the tortuous route required to authorize and pay for travel depicts a system more complicated than a computer chip and as outdated as a manual typewriter, Cohen told the Government Affairs oversight committee that he chairs.

``One of the reasons there’s so much discontent throughout the country ... is that they see incredible mismanagement of their dollars, a wasting of their money,″ said Cohen, R-Maine. ``The public has to be assured that we are spending their money wisely, and we cannot assure them of that in relation to travel.″

Some agencies require as many as 60 steps to authorize, pay for and audit travel vouchers. Much of that was created to stem fraud and abuse, and Cohen questioned whether a streamlined system could be scandal-free.

``It is a critical balancing act,″ said Christopher Hoenig of the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative branch.

While it is important to prevent abuse, he said, ``You can’t spend hundreds of dollars to control a $9 or $10 problem, either. ... Technical issues are not the problem. The question is, just how much risk can you accept?″

Tony Musick, chief financial officer for the Internal Revenue Service, said his agency deals with the problem through random audits.

Hoenig said 50 federal agencies are revising or plan to revise their travel procedures.

One organization has reduced the number of signatures required from seven to one, and another has cut the time to reimburse travel from three weeks to one day, he said. But he added many agencies have a long way to go.

At the Defense Department, where 3,000 people do nothing but process vouchers, 28 pilot projects are being conducted to find the best way to reduce the manpower and cost, said Comptroller John Hamre. Some attempts at streamlining are being hampered because the software is not yet available, he said.

Government administrative costs range from $37 to $123 per trip voucher, Hoenig said, basing the figures only on the agencies that have determined those costs. The lowest, $37, is spent by one region of the Forest Service, and the IRS is close behind at $39, he said.

In private industry, by comparison, the costs of the best organizations range from $10 to $20 per trip, the GAO found. Compared with up to 60 steps in the government, those organizations had only 11.

The government could save about $887 million per year if all agencies matched the $37 per trip voucher cost, Cohen estimated. By matching private industry’s $20 cost it could save $1 billion, and the $10 cost, $1.15 billion.

Cohen said revising procedures could save a forest, saying the number of multiple copies of vouchers required last year alone is ``the equivalent of having to cut down over 13,000 Maine spruce trees.″

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary came under renewed congressional criticism for her travels.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, at a House Commerce subcommittee hearing, accused the secretary of ``jet setting″ by traveling 328 days over the last three years, including 134 days outside the country.

While O’Leary has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel abroad on trade missions, some Energy Department workers are being told they may be temporarily furloughed because of money shortages, Barton said.

Democrats on the subcommittee came to O’Leary’s defense, noting that her predecessor, Admiral James Watkins, also traveled extensively although mostly in the United States. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., expressed concern that O’Leary was not called to testify.

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