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Government’s System for Authorizing Travel Is Under Attack

March 9, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government’s system of authorizing travel for workers is convoluted and outdated and costs the taxpayers $1 billion more than it should, says Sen. William Cohen.

``The government’s way of doing business is too often as outdated as manual typewriters and rotary telephones,″ the Maine Republican said Friday. ``The methods by which federal agencies manage travel and process travel vouchers are not only archaic but costly.″

If government agencies managed to automate and streamline their procedures the way the best private organizations do, they would save $1 billion or more, said Cohen. He based the estimates on findings of the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and the interagency Joint Financial Management Improvement Program.

Some of the multiple layers built into the system to authorize, pay for and audit travel vouchers were instituted to stem fraud and abuse. Cohen questioned whether streamlining would invite cheating.

``It is a critical balancing act,″ Christopher Hoenig of the GAO said during a hearing by the Senate Governmental Affairs oversight subcommittee, which Cohen chairs.

While it is important to prevent abuse, Hoenig 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?″

The Internal Revenue Service, with one of the lowest administrative costs for travel, keeps abuse in check through random audits, said Tony Musick, the IRS’ chief financial officer.

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

Government administrative costs range from $37 to $123 per trip voucher, Hoenig said. He based that on the relatively few 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 best organizations pay $10 to $20 per trip voucher, the GAO found. And it’s much simpler, with just 11 steps, compared with up to 60 in the government.

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.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary came under renewed congressional criticism for her travels, this time before a House Commerce subcommittee.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, accused her of ``jet setting″ on trade missions by traveling 328 days over the last three years, including 134 days outside the country, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now, some Energy Department workers are being told they may be temporarily furloughed because of money shortages, Barton said.

Democrats defended O’Leary, noting that her predecessor, Adm. 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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