House lawmakers are seeking to use their version of the fiscal 2025 defense spending bill as an opportunity to tighten restrictions on telework for federal workers.

On Friday, the $833 billion bill was approved in a 217-199 vote and included a provision that would bar the Defense Department from paying for the costs of telework or remote work for any employee or contractor on a regular or recurring basis.

According to data kept the the government’s HR agency, only about 38% of Defense Department civilians teleworked in 2022, and almost certainly that number has changed since office reentry has been pushed by both the White House and members of Congress.

It’s unclear how many defense contractors telework, but in general, those decisions are unaffected by federal regulations on the workforce and up to the supervisor or contracting office.

Republicans especially have taken issue with lingering telework that spiked in use during the pandemic, though it has been a tool in government for decades.

“Central to this issue is the concern that agencies — and certainly the Office of Personnel Management — do not know how many employees are teleworking or working remotely, or how often they do so,” wrote three Republicans on the House oversight committee in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other cabinet heads in August.

A number of bills have been drawn up since the COVID-19 pandemic formally ended to curb federal telework policies. None have so far passed both chambers, with Democrats saying telework has value for agencies that are struggling to fill key vacancies and retain staff.

In January, Ashish S. Vazirani, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a memo to the DoD workforce that telework, while a privilege, promotes “workforce efficiency, emergency preparedness, maximum mission readiness, and quality of life” and should be offered “to the broadest extent possible.”

For the most part, federal agencies have determined what schedule of remote and on-site work is appropriate for them, and changes, when they come up, are supposed to be negotiated with labor unions.

Republicans, however, have been trying to wrest decision making power back, saying unions and agencies are slow-walking a reentry plans despite the White House’s chief of staff telling them to “aggressively” increase in-person work last summer.

In another appropriations bill covering a smattering of civilian agencies including OPM, House lawmakers said they expect a governmentwide report from the Office of Management and Budget on telework use. It also instructed departments with less than 60% office utilization to get rid of space, though the General Services Administration, the government’s landlord, has said that’s easier said than done, given expenses and effort associated with consolidation.

“GSA has not provided briefings to the committee on how the federal government can reduce its office space requirements based on the lessons learned from the use of telework during the COVID–19 pandemic,” noted lawmakers in the House’s Financial Services-General Government appropriations bill.

While the House has advanced its defense and FS-GG bills through committee in recent weeks, the Senate has yet to put forward its versions. With roughly four months left before fiscal 2025 starts on Oct. 1, both chambers still need to reconcile differences in their spending bills before they can be made law and sent to the President’s desk for signature.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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