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GSA scandal highlights need for greater public discourse.

A growing divide between the federal government and the private sector is threatening our economic prosperity our ability to create jobs and our capacity for working together to solve America's problems.

The Administration has been so concerned with limiting the influence of lobbyists that it often sets policies in a vacuum, without input from the industries affected by government regulations. Congress by turn is so fixated on curtailing government spending that it limits the ability of federal agencies to seek the outside expertise and perspectives that contribute to good policymaking.

A prime example of this dangerous trend is Congress' visceral reaction to the recent General Services Administration (GSA) conference spending scandal in Las Vegas. Let me be clear that I'm not defending the GSA employee training program that reportedly cost taxpayers more than $800,000 and was the focus of numerous Congressional hearings this spring. Congress is right to scrutinize exorbitant government spending, and no one is going to argue with legislative proposals that curb waste and promote greater accountability with taxpayer dollars.

But when the House and Senate moved to address the GSA scandal in two identical amendments passed hastily before a spring recess in April, the resulting legislation was an overreach, and would have effectively ended government employees' participation in many private sector meetings and conferences.

One of the amendment's provisions, for example, would have prevented federal agencies from sending an employee to more than one conference sponsored or organized by an organization during any fiscal year. This provision is highly problematic for agency employees seeking education from non-governmental sources and for the associations and other private sector organizations that invite government employees to conferences.

Fortunately, associations and other organizations that hold meetings were quick to recognize the implications of this amendment. ASAE had more than 2,100 organizations join a sign-on letter urging Congress to revise the proposed restrictions, and after many meetings with key leaders on Capitol Hill. we are cautiously optimistic that cooler heads will prevail and that any final legislation in this area will take into consideration the important dialogue that takes place at meetings between government employees and the private sector.

Even if this threat is mitigated, however, budgetary pressures and the emergence of various virtual meeting technologies will continue to tempt policymakers into thinking they can cut back on in-person meetings. Associations and nonprofit organizations will need to protect their ability to meet face-to-face with government employees if we're going to continue to share insights and expertise on various issues. That dialogue is essential to the development of informed policymaking that facilitates economic growth and job creation.

The dangers of government operating in isolation--with fewer opportunities to learn and exchange information with private industries in a conference or meeting setting--are too great to ignore.

John H. Graham IV, CAE, is president & CEO of ASAE/The Center for Association Leadership in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:LOBBYING
Author:Graham, John H.
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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