Washington — — An effort to expand telecommuting by federal workers ran afoul Thursday of a newly intensified Republican strategy to highlight government spending as an election-year issue.
The House of Representatives rejected a telework measure, introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, that would require uniform rules for federal employees who work at sites other than their regular government offices, such as their homes.
In addition to improving government productivity, proponents say, telecommuting can reduce traffic congestion in places like the Baltimore-Washington corridor and lessen air pollution by taking cars off the road.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost the government $30 million over the next five years to implement new telework rules. Republicans seized on that figure to block approval on the grounds that no new money was set aside to pay for it.
"Republican members opposed the bill because it would add $30 million to the deficit," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat, said in an interview that government agencies could use their existing budgets to implement the law, which would require new telework training and the designation of a telework managing officer within each agency.
The Republican opposition is "another example of politics trumping common-sense policy," Sarbanes said.
Supporters of the legislation say telecommuting saved $30 million a day in productivity that would otherwise have been lost when February snowstorms shut down federal offices in Washington. It could also be helpful during special events, such as the recent nuclear summit, which snarled traffic in the capital for two days.
Every member of the Maryland congressional delegation, including the lone Republican, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, voted in favor of the measure, which fell short of the two-thirds margin needed for approval.
Democratic leaders are likely to reintroduce the measure, requiring only a simple majority — which it currently has. The House approved telecommuting legislation in 2008, but it died in the Senate, which has yet to approve a similar plan this year.