Agency Can Pay for Food and Fanfare–But Can’t Go Into Business

An agency can host a conference and pay for food but can’t charge a fee and keep the proceeds

Many federal employees have gone to conferences for feds (and others) and had the agency reimburse them for their meals.

But the Government Accountability Office was recently asked to rule on a question regarding payment of meals at conferences, but with a different twist:

Can an agency use its appropriated funds to pay for meals for conference participants when it is hosting the conference? GAO also considered whether agencies must have specific authority to both charge a fee for conference-related expenses, including food, and keep the money for the conference it is hosting.

Not surprisingly, the decision was that an agency does not need specific statutory authority to host a conference. Since conferences are routinely hosted by agencies throughout government, this may be a relief to the training officers or project managers running these events and who never asked whether it could be done.

The only criteria to be used in deciding whether such a conference is legitimate is whether it is “reasonably and logically related to carrying out its statutory responsibilities and serves its statutory mission.”

With regard to furnishing food for conference participants, there is also no statutory problem, even if conference participants include private sector participants.

As it often does, the GAO outlined the criteria to consider in deciding whether paying for meals at conferences is legitimate:

(1) the meals and refreshments are incidental to the formal conference, (2) attendance at the meals and when refreshments are served is important for the host agency to ensure attendees’ full participation, and (3) the conference “includes substantial functions occurring separately from when the food is served.”

So, can an agency go into the business of running conferences, make a profit and keep the money?

Apparently not–at least without approval from Congress. An agency cannot increase the amount of money it gets to spend above and beyond that given to it by Congress with the specific authority to do so.

And, if an agency does charge a registration fee for a conference, it has to give the money back to the Treasury Department. Perhaps thinking ahead to how an agency may try to get around this prohibition, the decision threw in the conclusion that a “contractor receiving money for the government may not retain funds received for the government to pay for the conference costs.”

You can download the full decision from the link on the left hand side of the page.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47