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July 01, 2012

Bills could restrict meeting attendance

ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III cautioned last month that language in two pieces of legislation is overly and unnecessarily broad and could severely restrict government employee attendance at meetings and conferences held by associations and other nongovernmental organizations.    

Robinson, writing June 8 to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, explained that the association is aware of the legitimate objective of bringing greater control and accountability to public expenditures for agency-sponsored events, but is concerned that there may be unintended and unforeseeable negative consequences for government agencies, associations and other organizations, and the public if the provisions were enacted.

Section 501 of S. 1789, the 21st Century Postal Service Act, and Section 308 of H.R. 2146, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, provide that no federal agency “may expend funds on more than a single conference sponsored or organized by an organization during any fiscal year, unless the agency is the primary sponsor and organizer of the conference.”

The language defines “conference” as a meeting “sponsored by 1 or more agencies, 1 or more organizations that are not agencies or a combination of such agencies or organizations.”

“Taken together,” Robinson said, “these provisions could virtually halt agency employee participation in a significant number of events that provide invaluable and unique opportunities for education, consultation, skills training, outreach and other activity by government agency lawyers and other employees that clearly advance the interests of the government.”

He explained that the word “organization” would presumably include any association, corporation, nongovernmental entity, educational institution or other organized group. The second part of the language may be interpreted to mean that if an agency employee participates in an event sponsored by an association or other organization, no other employee of that agency may attend (at government expense) any other event held by that association or organization for the remainder of the fiscal year.   

Robinson emphasized the benefits that government employees, the public and the private bar gain from interactions during conferences and meetings.

Government attorneys, he said, provide the private bar with the government’s perspective on a myriad of important topics as well as a better understanding of how the government conducts its business. The interactions also provide the government with an additional means of communicating its perspective on issues of concern to the legal community. The meetings also foster an open and vigorous exchange of views with private sector lawyers, judges and academics on matters of law and policy.

“Government lawyers should be encouraged, not discouraged, from taking advantage of the many educational and professional development opportunities provided by the ABA and other bar and professional associations,” Robinson wrote. 

There was action on both bills April 25 when the Senate passed S. 1789 by a 62-37 vote and the House voted passed H.R. 2146 by voice vote.

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