Conservatives seeking Brand USA reform in reauthorization bill

At the same time, Capitol Hill conservatives are looking to block the reauthorization of the Export Import Bank, their attention is also turning towards reforming a pseudo-governmental program called Brand USA.

The most recent hurdle in the reforming the program was passed July 10 when the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, chaired by Rep. Lee R. Terry (R-Neb), passed H.R. 4450, the Travel Promotion, Enhancement, and Modernization Act of 2014, a reauthorization of Brand USA by a 22-0 vote.

Brand USA, as it was once known “The Corporation for Travel Promotion,” is financed by private donations and a $10 fee on foreign visitors, who travel to the United States from a country covered by the visa waiver program.

The funds are deposited in an account held by the Treasury Department, and drawn upon by Brand USA as reimbursements for its own expenses to promote travel to the United States. Since its inception, the program is reportedly responsible for generating over 1.1 million visits to the US generating an estimated $3.4 billion in spending by tourists at no cost to taxpayers.

In 2012, Senator James W. DeMint up with Sen. Thomas A. Coburn (R.-Okla.) to issue a report that cited numerous abuses in the management of the program including in-kind reimbursements of airfare at above market prices and tips for things such as doormen.

The new reforms, written by the bill’s sponsor Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R.-Fla.) tighten the criteria for reimbursements and improve the program’s corporate governance.

Bilirakis, who said he wanted to reform the program because it’s bang for the buck. “Brand USA is a public-private partnership that markets the United States as a tourism destination. Brand USA is supported by international visitors and private contributions – not U.S. taxpayers.”

The Bilirakis bill increased the professionalism and experience required of Brand USA’s Board of Directors – specifically at least two members of the board shall have audit committee expertise as defined by the SEC. It also requires Brand USA to establish performance metrics to measure the impact of Brand USA’s marketing efforts and to demonstrate its benefit to the U.S. economy.

Other reforms include, improving Brand USA’s reporting requirements to Congress, such as a new requirement for a biannual review of its reimbursement process.

The program is also required to respond to Congress in regards to how it handled any and all recommendations from the Government Accountability Office.

The bill heads to the full Commerce committee for a vote this week. The hope with conservatives is that Brand USA, which is a powerful promotional tool for the travel and tourism industry, can be reauthorized in its new incarnation, without vested interests either sneaking back in old practices or weakening the new oversight rules.

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