The Washington Times - April 10, 2012, 04:17PM

As congressional committees tee up to grill the General Services Administration over a pricey 2010 conference in Las Vegas that cost several top officials their jobs, the White House is claiming that federal agencies this year are slashing conference and travel costs and are on track to save $1.2 billion.

“Federal agencies have identified, and are currently executing plans to achieve travel and conference cost savings that total nearly $1.2 billion as a result of the president’s executive order,” a senior administration official told The Washington Times in an email.

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During the first quarter of the fiscal year 2012, agencies have achieved more than $280 million in reduced costs compared to the same period of time in fiscal year 2010, according to the White House.

The administration official highlighted cost savings at four different agencies:

• The Department of Labor identified more than 100 conferences to be eliminated.

• The Department of Homeland Security cut travel costs by more than $13 million

• The State Department will hold the majority of their conferences in government facilities as opposed to renting hotels.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture reduced travel spending by $47 million by canceling conferences and increasing the use of video conference technology.

While clearly a step in the right direction, some taxpayer advocate groups are wondering why President Obama didn’t initiate the belt-tightening moves earlier in his administration.

“Certainly in hindsight I’m sure the president wishes he had gotten them to cancel the GSA conference in 2010, and surely there were some unnecessary conferences that didn’t need to happen. That said, I think it’s important going forward to show belt-tightening and shared sacrifice to the American people who are struggling in a tough economy,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for CommonSense.

Mr. Obama issued marching orders in November calling for all Cabinet agencies to cut back on everything — from out-of-town conferences to cellphone use and official gifts such as pencils and mugs. The president singled out travel as an area ripe for savings.

Earlier this week, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned after the GSA’s inspector general reported that the agency had held an $800,000 conference for employees outside Las Vegas in 2010.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, plans to hold hearings on the 2010 GSA conference and others the agency held during previous administrations.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, Thursday asked the GSA to explain an internal program that awarded $200,000 worth of iPods, gift cards and other items that Mr. Mica said were “questionable … at best.”