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July 30, 2015

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GSA’s pricey Vegas vacation gets four hearings in Congress this week

WASHINGTON - Capitol Hill is weighing in on the government’s Las Vegas spending scandal over the course four hearings this week — two in the House, two in the Senate — each billed as an examination of how a federal agency could have run up excessive bills for a regional conference.

The committees will likely reach dramatically different conclusions.

While leaders in the Democratic-led Senate have expressed shock at the $823,000 cost of the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service Western Division conference at the M Resort and Casino last year, they have largely taken the view of the administration: That this was an example of gross managerial incompetence, but a crisis that can be quarantined by disciplining the GSA and its top officials.

For the Republican-led House, however, the GSA episode is the latest example of an administration they claim is blowing taxpayer dollars.

The march of hearings begins today with the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, where chairman Darrell Issa -- one of the loudest voices chastising the Obama administration over Solyndra, a renewable energy loan guarantee project that failed -- has already issued a verdict on President Barack Obama’s responsibility for the Las Vegas conference.

“After President Obama lectured the private sector about not wasting funds on Las Vegas conventions, it’s hypocritical that such a large agency with critical management responsibilities across government would hold this luxurious conference at the height of the recession,” he said in reaction to the Inspector General report revealing the overspending that came out earlier this month.

As the hearing date has approached, Issa has distributed video clips from the conference in question and run numbers back to the Bush administration showing that “excluding travel, cost of the Obama GSA convention more than doubled any previous WRC convention.”

Previous WRC conventions took place in New Orleans and Oklahoma City -- cities with a less robust convention market than Las Vegas.

Issa’s assault on the Obama administration has not been as constant as that of Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, which holds its hearing Tuesday. He and Rep. Jeff Denham, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Public Buildings Service, have been releasing new findings and statements almost daily since the Inspector General’s report was first published, concluding that: “It’s clear that the culture of waste and corruption went all the way to the top, with the president’s hand-picked administrator ignoring his call to cut waste in government.”

There has been less vitriol from heads of the Senate committees that called hearings on the Las Vegas conference for Wednesday. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced with little fanfare that the Environment and Public Works committee would hear from the two top acting officials at the GSA: Acting commissioner Dan Tangherlini and GSA Inspector General Brian Miller, who drove the investigation and penned the report that sparked the scandal. Neither was that closely linked to the Vegas conference however: Public Buildings Service commissioner Bob Peck and senior counselor Stephen Leeds were both fired before the report was released, and administrator Martha Johnson resigned.

Miller and Tangherlini will then head to the Financial Services subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations committee, whose chair Sen. Richard Durbin has been mum about his impressions of who is to blame for the overspending -- though the appropriations committee’s interest is a sign that the budget for the GSA, or at least the Public Buildings Service, could be in jeopardy in light of recent revelations. Rep. Jo Anne Emerson, who chairs the equivalent House appropriations subcommittee, has already said she intends to slash the GSA’s budget, according to various reports.

Both Boxer and Durbin are close allies of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who has already said in no uncertain terms that he believes the House committee investigations are politically motivated witch hunts. Both Republican and Democratic members of the Nevada delegation have warned House leaders to steer clear of besmirching Las Vegas in the process of their investigations.

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