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House sends telework bill to Obama

The House on Thursday sent President Obama a bill to boost telework at federal agencies, over objections by Republicans who said the measure would grant civil servants another costly fringe benefit and add layers of bureaucracy at a time when Americans want a smaller government.

Members voted 254-152 to pass the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act (H.R. 1722), which requires agencies to determine which employees are eligible to work outside the office, to establish policies allowing them to do so and to inform them of the option. The measure also requires agencies to designate an official to oversee their telework program and to incorporate the alternative work arrangement in continuity of operations planning for natural disasters and other emergencies.

During debate on the House floor, the bill's sponsors touted it as a common-sense measure that will save money down the road by reducing agencies' overhead costs, cutting energy consumption and improving productivity. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that implementing the bill will cost about $30 million over five years. But Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said the long-term savings will provide an "excellent return" on this initial investment. He noted private sector companies such as IBM have saved as much as $56 million annually in reduced office space by allowing employees to telework.

Supporters also emphasized telework is instrumental in keeping government running during emergencies and natural disasters such as the snowstorms that crippled Washington last winter.

"Passage of this telework bill is critical to ensuring that the essential services provided to Americans are not interrupted during times of emergencies, or extremely adverse weather conditions," Sue Webster, national president of Federally Employed Women, said in a statement praising lawmakers for sending the legislation to Obama. "We ... ask that the president sign it as soon as possible."

But some Republicans said the bill's potential price tag is too high, given the current economic climate and Congress' mandate -- driven home by the Nov. 2 midterm election results -- to decrease spending and cut government. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., argued federal employees already are teleworking and don't need extra help. With unemployment topping 9 percent, it is a "travesty" that Democrats are "pushing this initiative to make it easier for federal employees -- who already have it much easier than the rest of the country -- to avoid the office," she said.

Republicans also expressed anger that the Senate had stripped out some of the oversight provisions built into the version of the bill the House passed in July. The final bill no longer requires agencies to certify that their telework programs will save money, for instance, though backers noted it does ask the Government Accountability Office and Office of Personnel Management to evaluate telework progress periodically.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, pledged to work during the next Congress to reinstate some of the safeguards the House approved in the July version. He noted he supports telework to make government more efficient but believes the bill in its current form creates bureaucracy without protections against abuse. Issa is likely to chair the oversight committee when Republicans take control of the House in January.

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