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US Government Shutdown Hampers Attendance at Defense Conferences

Oct. 9, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
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The government shutdown and DoD travel restrictions is affecting attendance at defense conferences. Pictured: Displays on the show floor at the Air Force Association Annual Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition at National Harbor, Md., on Sept.16. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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WASHINGTON — The US government shutdown and travel restrictions placed on Pentagon civilian and military officials who are still working is hampering attendance at defense conferences.

At least one major conference has been postponed and uncertainty surrounds several upcoming events.

On Wednesday, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation — which organizes the GEOINT Symposium, scheduled for next week in Tampa, Fla. — postponed the event until spring 2014 due to travel bans on military and government personnel.

At a satellite conference in Washington on Wednesday, scheduled DoD speakers were replaced with industry officials. Speakers from DoD, NASA and the Commerce Department all canceled. Attendees expressed disappointment that government officials were not present.

Since the US government is shutdown, only active-duty military and civilians supporting “excepted activities” — like the war in Afghanistan — are working. About 10 percent of the 700,000-plus civilian workforce is furloughed.

“Unless connected with excepted activities, training and travel would have to be stopped,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale warned in a Sept. 27 briefing.

The Pay Our Military Act — which Congress passed on Sept. 30 — might allow DoD officials to attend conferences. However, no formal guidance has been issued. The act allowed DoD to bring back 90 percent of 350,000 civilians being furloughed.

Even before the recent shutdown, military attendance at conferences has been under increased scrutiny in recent years. In particular, the services spending tens of millions of dollars annually to construct, transport, set-up, break-down and store elaborate display booths.

In response, DoD has instituted a process for reviewing and approving attendance at major conferences. Still, attendance at military trade shows was down as contractors are curbing spending on such events , even before the shutdown.

If the shutdown continues in the coming weeks, it could affect attendance at a number of major trade shows.

The Association if the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington — an event that typically attracts more than 25,000 people — is less than two weeks away. The conference is boasting more than 700 Army and industry exhibitors “using 500,000 square feet of exhibit space.”

The Army continues to plan for the annual meeting pending a final decision from service Secretary John McHugh on whether soldiers stationed outside the Washington-area will be allowed to attend.

Most temporary-duty travel has been canceled or suspended since the government shut down Oct. 1, and a number of soldiers, including some who are scheduled to speak, have expressed to Army Times uncertainty and confusion about whether they will be able to travel to the meeting.

In early September, McHugh signed off on uniformed attendance at the conference. As many as 450 soldiers were initially authorized to travel to the conference, which begins Oct. 21.

No TDY or travel plans have been canceled, Col. Gary Kolb, an Army spokesman, said Wednesday.

“We are continuing to plan for participating in this year’s AUSA annual meeting,” Kolb said. “We expect the [Secretary of the Army] to make a final decision on the level of participation very soon. Until we receive that ... the normal planning continues.”

He added that most of the soldiers participating in the annual meeting are already stationed in the D.C. area.

Defense contractors pay big money for exhibit booths and sponsorship at the event. For example, sponsoring six email kiosks throughout the Walter E. Washington Convention Center costs $35,000, according to AUSA brochure. Sponsoring free Wi-Fi at the event is $10,000. For $5,000, a company can have is logo displayed on a giant 12-foot by 12-foot vinyl banner that is “prominently displayed.”

Scheduled DoD speakers include McHugh and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the service’s chief of staff. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is scheduled to receive an award at the event.

The Association of Old Crows — an influential group that advocated for military electronic warfare programs and policy — is scheduled to hold its annual symposium at the end of the October. Scheduled speakers include Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Aaron Mehta and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

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