Senator to introduce postal reform bill next year

Left for dead in the House, legislation to reform the Postal Service will soon resurface in the Senate. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said Wednesday he plans to introduce postal reform legislation early next year. Speaking at the National Association of Letter Carriers annual conference in Philadelphia, Carper said he hopes to build a strong bipartisan coalition and move quickly on a bill.

But getting traction on legislation won't be easy. There is strong opposition from the American Postal Workers Union, the agency's largest employee organization, and from private shipping companies-particularly United Parcel Service. Even among reform advocates, the prospect of another bill garnered a lukewarm reception. "We are glad to see that some members of Congress are interested and getting involved in the debate," said Robert McLean, executive director of the Mailers Council, the mailing industry's largest trade association. "The first challenge he [Carper] is going to face is getting attention for the bill, regardless of the contents. Then he has to convince members that this is the right vehicle." The House faced similar challenges with its postal reform bill. Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., tried for six years to get members to pay attention to the agency's looming financial crisis, let alone enact a reform bill. When a bill finally gained some momentum, it died in the House Government Reform Committee on June 21 when Democrats refused to support the measure without assurances that it would be voted on by the full House. Nonetheless, Carper plans to introduce legislation identical to McHugh's, according to congressional sources. That bill sought to remove the agency's breakeven mandate, allowing it to retain profits and invest in new technology or pay bonuses to employees. The House bill would have also established a new rate-setting process, giving the agency authority to offer discounts to large volume mailers. The House version also allowed the agency to change rates more quickly than it can under the current process, which can take up to 16 months. Given the uphill battle in the House, reform proponents aren't optimistic that a bill will see action in the Senate. So, industry groups are turning their attention to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. They want President Bush to appoint a commission to develop a set of reform recommendations. "It's an interesting idea," said White House spokesman Taylor Griffin, adding that the administration is "taking a look at it." He did not specify a time frame for when-or if-the administration will make a decision. Carper is skeptical of a commission. Not only could it add another year or two to the process, but he also expressed concern that presidential commissions are too political and have a predetermined outcome. "The legislation was cutting edge in 1996," countered Gene Del Polito, president of the Association of Postal Commerce, an Arlington, Va.-based trade association. "We are way beyond that now." Del Polito said the legislation does not address the most pressing financial issue facing the Postal Service: How is the agency going to tackle its growing debt and liabilities? According to data from the General Accounting Office, the Postal Service has more than $100 billion in debt and liabilities, including $11.3 billion in accumulated debt and $6 billion in workers' compensation claims. There's also roughly $48 billion in pension liabilities and $49 billion in health care premium liabilities. Pinning down the exact cost of the latter two is difficult because the Postal Service and the Office of Personnel Management have different figures. GAO is working with both agencies to provide a more accurate financial picture. These liabilities are not factored into the rate-setting process. And, in the end, the federal government might have to come up with the funds. A commission should first answer the question of how to pay down these costs, said Del Polito, and then address long-term transformation of agency operations.

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