Use of Appropriated Funds to Purchase Light Refreshments at Conferences

B-288266: Jan 27, 2003

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Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. 3529(a), a Navy certifying officer asks us to clarify whether the light refreshments provision of the General Services Administration (GSA) Federal Travel Regulation (FTR) on conference planning, 41 C.F.R. 301-74.11, permits agencies to use appropriated funds for refreshments at a meeting to discuss internal, day-to-day business operations held within the official duty station. As a general proposition, an agency may not use appropriated funds to pay for light refreshments for business meetings conducted by government agencies at an employee's duty station. There are certain statutory authorities that may permit the use of appropriated funds for light refreshments in certain situations. GSA does not, however, have the authority to permit agencies to use appropriated funds to pay for employees' food and light refreshments, except as part of an employee's travel subsistence allowance. Moreover, since Congress reposed the authority to settle the accounts of the government in the Comptroller General, 31 U.S.C. 3526, certifying officers should not rely on GSA's travel regulation on conference planning to authorize light refreshments at meetings for employees in nontravel status.

B-288266, Use of Appropriated Funds to Purchase Light Refreshments at Conferences, January 27, 2003



Decision


Matter of: Use of Appropriated Funds to Purchase Light Refreshments at Conferences

File: B-288266

Date: January 27, 2003


DIGEST

1. The General Services Administration (GSA), through its travel regulation on conference planning, purports to authorize federal agencies to pay for light refreshments at official government-sponsored conferences where a majority of the attendees are in travel status. 41 C.F.R. 301-74.11. While GSA is authorized to define subsistence for travelers to include light refreshments, 5 U.S.C. 5702, GSA does not have the authority to authorize agencies to pay for light refreshments for those not in travel status.

2. The Comptroller General is required to settle the accounts of the United States.
31 U.S.C. 3526(a). Pursuant to his account settlement authority, the Comptroller General can take exception to an improper transaction and refuse to relieve a certifying officer from personal liability for the amount of money improperly expended. Certifying officers are afforded protection from personal liability by relying on decisions of the Comptroller General concerning the legality of payments disbursing officers may make, or of expenditures covered by vouchers presented to certifying officers for certification. 31 U.S.C. 3529. Since Congress reposed the authority in the Comptroller General to settle the accounts of the government, certifying officers should not rely on GSA's travel regulation on conference planning to authorize light refreshments at meetings for employees in nontravel status.

3. As a general proposition, absent statutory authority, appropriated funds are not available to feed government employees at their duty station. The Comptroller General has identified other authorities that, in certain circumstances, permit the use of appropriated funds to pay for meals and light refreshments. Agencies (and their accountable officers) should rely on existing, relevant statutory authority as interpreted by the Comptroller General to determine whether they may provide food to federal employees.


Decision

Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. 3529(a), a Navy certifying officer asks us to clarify whether the light refreshments provision of the General Services Administration (GSA) Federal Travel Regulation (FTR) on conference planning, 41 C.F.R. 301-74.11, permits agencies to use appropriated funds for refreshments at a meeting to discuss internal, day-to-day business operations held within the official duty station. As a general proposition, an agency may not use appropriated funds to pay for light refreshments for business meetings conducted by government agencies at an employee's duty station. There are certain statutory authorities that may permit the use of appropriated funds for light refreshments in certain situations. GSA does not, however, have the authority to permit agencies to use appropriated funds to pay for employees' food and light refreshments, except as part of an employee's travel subsistence allowance. Moreover, since Congress reposed the authority to settle the accounts of the government in the Comptroller General, 31 U.S.C. 3526, certifying officers should not rely on GSA's travel regulation on conference planning to authorize light refreshments at meetings for employees in nontravel status.

BACKGROUND

In January 2000, GSA published an amendment to the Federal Travel Regulations to address –conference planning.— 65 Fed. Reg. 1326, Jan. 10, 2000. The amendment defines –conference— as –[a] meeting, retreat, seminar, symposium or event that involves attendee travel. The term 'conference' also applies to training activities that are considered to be conferences under 5 CFR 410.404.—[1] 41 C.F.R. 300-3.1. The regulation focuses on the total costs involved in employee travel to conferences, including guidance on comparing the cost of and selecting conference facilities,
41 C.F.R. 301-74.2--74.5, and holding a conference at a hotel, motel, or other place of public accommodation. 41 C.F.R. 301-74.14. In addressing the costs of conferences, the amendment includes a provision permitting agencies to pay for light refreshments at official conferences:

Agencies sponsoring a conference may provide light refreshments to agency employees attending an official conference. Light refreshments for morning, afternoon or evening breaks are defined to include, but not be limited to, coffee, tea, milk, juice, soft drinks, donuts, bagels, fruit, pretzels, cookies, chips, or muffins.

41 C.F.R. 301-74.11. In its Federal Register notice explaining the light refreshments provision, GSA asserted that –[t]he serving of light refreshments for conference attendees . . . is a common business practice, and should not be prohibited for Government-sponsored conferences.— 65 Fed. Reg. at 1326.

GSA has advised agencies that they may use appropriated funds to pay for refreshments for nontravelers at some conferences. GSA's Travel Management Policy Homepage explained: –We have not made it mandatory that every attendee has to be in travel status, as that would not be practical at every conference/meeting. It would not be in the Government's best interests to not allow Non-travel attendees to participate in the break (forcing them to go elsewhere for refreshments) or to collect funds from just certain attendees and keep the appropriate records of those funds.— GSA advises, therefore, that if the majority of the attendees are in travel status, the agency may fund refreshments for all attendees. GSA, Travel Management Policy's Frequently Asked Questions, <http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/ content/offerings_content.jsp?contentOID=118763&Content Type=1004&PMTT=1>.

A Navy certifying officer submitted a request for an advance decision pursuant to
31 U.S.C. 3529(a). The certifying officer stated that since the light refreshment provision of the travel regulation on conference planning appears inconsistent with Comptroller General decisions, the regulation has created confusion regarding when an agency may provide food for employees.

Analysis

Comptroller General's Authority to Settle Accounts

At the outset it is useful to delineate the General Accounting Office's and GSA's authorities. The Comptroller General is required to settle the accounts of the United States. 31 U.S.C. 3526(a). In carrying out this duty, the Comptroller General resolves questions about the legality of payments disbursing officers or heads of agencies may make, or the legality of expenditures covered by vouchers presented to certifying officers for certification. 31 U.S.C. 3529. Thus, a certifying official may request a decision from the Comptroller General on a question involving a voucher in advance of the certifying officer's certification of that voucher. 31 U.S.C. 3529(a). A decision by the Comptroller General pursuant to 31 U.S.C. 3529 is conclusive on the Comptroller General when settling the account containing the payment. In more practical terms, the Comptroller General in an audit of agency obligations and expenditures may not legally object to particular financial transactions that he has already decided under section 3529 are in accordance with law.

Congress has authorized GSA to prescribe regulations necessary for the administration of travel and subsistence expenses, and mileage allowances. 5 U.S.C. 5707. Indeed, GSA promulgates and maintains the Federal Travel Regulation that provides travel policy for federal government agencies and their travelers. 41 C.F.R. Ch. 301-304. While we recognize GSA's role in promulgating travel regulations and the deference due GSA in the exercise thereof, there is nothing explicitly or implicitly in such function that affects the Comptroller General's role as the arbiter of the use of funds for official as opposed to personal purposes.

Appropriated Funds Generally Are Not Available for the Personal Expenses, Including Food, of Government Employees





United States v. MacCollom







Light Refreshment Provision of GSA's Travel Regulation on Conference Planning







[2]



Other Authority




See, e.g. [3]

See, e.g. See, e.g.


Conclusion










[1]





[2] See e.g.
[3] i.e.

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