Senate committee passes postal overhaul legislation

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill to overhaul the Postal Service for the first time in three decades, giving the agency greater rate-setting flexibility and the ability to respond to market forces more like a private business.

In a 17-0 vote, the committee approved the bill (S. 2468), which is largely based on a postal change bill written last year by Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del. Carper said that Wednesday's legislation improves on his previous bill in the area of health benefits for postal retirees.

A similar postal change bill (H.R. 4341) was approved last month in the House Government Reform Committee, and House and Senate aides said they expect floor votes on the bills sometime in June.

Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, Wednesday said she hopes "the comprehensive bipartisan legislation we have drafted would put the Postal Service on stronger financial ground." She also noted the numerous bipartisan cosponsors, as well as broad support for the bill among postal employers and supervisors, commercial mailers and postal competitors.

After accepting a manager's amendment from Collins that made minor changes to the underlying legislation, the committee narrowly approved an amendment from ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that would limit the Postal Service's ability to offer work-share discounts to mailers. The Lieberman amendment, which passed on a 9-8 roll call vote, proved to be the only serious sticking point in the committee's consideration of the bill.

Work-share discounts are essentially incentives offered to postal customers who perform tasks that otherwise would be done by the Postal Service itself. The underlying bill would prohibit work-share discounts that exceed the savings seen by the Postal Service, but it includes five exceptions. The Lieberman amendment would strike one of those exceptions -- a catchall provision allowing the Postal Regulatory Commission to approve excessive discounts. The amendment also would amend another of the exceptions that would allow excessive discounts for new postal products and services. The amendment adds a four-year sunset provision.

Carper supported Lieberman's provision, saying it would "close a loophole in our bill." Lieberman said his amendment would facilitate an easier conference on the bill, because the postal bill approved last month by the House Government Reform Committee includes the same four-year time frame. Collins said the underlying bill would sufficiently limit the work-share discounts for new services, because it already would require them to be phased out over time.

"The Lieberman amendment is very prescriptive, and it would eliminate the flexibility that has already been demonstrated as beneficial for both the Postal Service and its customers," she said. Ultimately, the committee accepted the Lieberman amendment on a party-line vote, with only Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who voted by proxy, going against his party.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., offered an amendment calling for a General Accounting Office study to determine the feasibility of offering postal rate incentives to mailers who use a certain amount of recycled paper. The committee accepted his amendment by voice vote, with little discussion.

The committee also accepted by voice vote an amendment from Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., to move the responsibility for developing accounting standards for pricing competitive mail products from the Postal Service to the Treasury.

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