Federal officials are trying to boost the amount of time that government employees telecommute to their jobs as a way to ease traffic congestion and prepare for potential pandemics such as swine flu.

Federal agencies have to submit their telework policies next week as the first phase of a crackdown to prevent middle managers from limiting employees’ ability to telework.

Meanwhile, local members of Congress are helping to push a pair of bills that would toughen the rules.

Only 5 percent of the nation’s 1.9 million federal employees telework. It’s not clear, though, how many of the  294,617 who work in the Washington region are among those ranks.

But officials often note the effect that federal employees have on local transportation systems. Metro officials estimate that federal employees make up about 40 percent of the transit system’s rush hour traffic.

Federal agencies have been encouraged to let employees do at least some work away from the office since an initial measure passed in 2000, but it became more important in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when government officials realized employees needed to be able to do their jobs elsewhere if necessary. The current swine flu scare has helped renew the push.

Working away from the office reduces the agencies’ costs for office space and serves as a recruitment tool to win and keep employees. It also means fewer people using roads, trains and buses during rush hour.

Although top administrators and workers support the program, the idea has faced resistance from middle managers.

One agency last year told all teleworking employees that they had to do three extra weeks of work a year because they weren’t sitting in traffic like their colleagues in the office, according to Rep. Frank Wolf’s legislative assistant, Tom Culligan. The telecommuting numbers immediately dropped.

Now Wolf and Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Jim Moran,  D-Va., and John Sarbanes, D-Md. have sponsored a bill to require federal agencies to let eligible employees telecommute for at least 20 percent of the hours they work every two weeks.

The bill also would tighten the reporting requirements to give officials a better measure of how many employees are working away from the office. And it makes agency chiefs accountable if their departments don’t comply.

“It’s not a benefit, it’s a requirement,” Culligan said.