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Opinion At last, some bipartisanship on federal workers returning to the office

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) during the swearing-in ceremony for her third term at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Jan. 2. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Not too long ago, the question of getting federal workers back into their offices was breaking down along familiar partisan lines.

Last summer, Biden administration officials such as Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja extolled pandemic-triggered workplace flexibilities — telework, hybrid work schedules, etc. They promoted “resilience of federal government operations in the face of disruptions, enhance productivity, and improve employee morale,” Ahuja said.

Republicans such as then-Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia noticed that the message didn’t quite jibe with President Biden’s State of the Union address last March, when he said, “People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices. We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”

“They are still not back,” Hice groused in a July hearing of the government operations subcommittee. He noted that when he and Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) “wrote asking when feds would return,” the Office of Personnel Management “stated federal employees would continue in a mix of in-office and telework arrangements. So, what changed after the State of the Union? It does not sound like anything.”

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This month, Comer, now the chairman of the Oversight Committee, introduced a bill mandating that federal agencies return to their pre-pandemic office arrangements within 30 days. (As usual, the proposed legislation has one of those cutesy acronym-friendly names, the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act — the Show Up Act.) Comer also sent a Jan. 11 letter to General Services Administration head Robin Carnahan asking about whistleblower reports, received by Republicans on the committee, that she has spent most of her time working remotely rather than in Washington. He seems not to have received a reply yet.

For far too many people in politics, a Republican position is by its very nature, unreasonable, right-wing and extreme — right up until the moment a prominent Democrat embraces it. Once an elected official on the left recognizes the same problem, it stops being a partisan wedge issue and distraction, and somehow transmogrifies into a legitimate concern.

Last year, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee saw little reason to nudge anyone back to the office. They passed a bill that essentially would lock in the widened telework practices that agencies put in place because of the pandemic, but it never came to the floor of the chamber.

Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, contended that bills such as Comer’s Show Up Act “denigrate the federal workforce and undermine recruitment and retention” and that the proposal is based upon “misinformation.”

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Now comes a prominent Democrat also worried about federal workers staying away from the office: D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who’s beginning her third term. In her inaugural address, she broached the obvious: Here we are, three years after the coronavirus struck — four months after Biden declared that “the pandemic is over” — and still many fewer federal workers come into D.C. every weekday than before the pandemic. That has all kinds of deleterious consequences for the city’s economy and daily life.

“No matter what we do, it won’t be fast enough without the help of the White House,” Bowser said on Jan. 2. “The federal government represents one quarter of D.C.’s pre-pandemic jobs and owns or leases one third of D.C.’s office space. We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by non-profits, by businesses and by any user willing to revitalize it.”

You can’t begrudge Bowser her stance; even if the pandemic isn’t “over,” it is rapidly receding in the rearview mirror, yet she still has an empty downtown to fill. In November, The Post’s Editorial Board lamented that “most days, the city, especially the core downtown blocks around the White House, looks more like a ghost town than a vibrant capital city.”

According to an Office of Personnel Management government-wide survey released in October, nearly 40 percent of federal workers said they work fully remotely or at home three or more days a week. Another 17 percent say they are at home one or two days a week.

Now, Bowser is about as far as you can get from being a right-wing Republican or irascible antagonist of federal workers. All she’s asking is for federal workers to, you know, show up to work the way they used to in 2019. That really doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Americans have access to vaccines and boosters, and everyone is free to wear a mask if desired. The president is 80 years old, lived through a bout of covid last summer and has long been back in the (Oval) office.

Biden’s next State of the Union address is Feb. 7. Instead of issuing another empty promise about the return of the federal workforce, he should make the Show Up Act moot by ordering federal employees back to their desks.

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