Postal reform backers upbeat, but effort may be delayed

Congressional champions of Postal Service reform are predicting success for legislation to overhaul the cash-strapped mail system. But postal unions' opposition to some reform proposals could push the effort into next year, some involved sources suggest.

At the heart of the debate is a report that the President's Commission on the United States Postal Service released at the end of July after eight months of study. Two of the commission's recommendations worry the unions and figure to be points of contention on Capitol Hill. One would cut the size of the postal workforce, while the other would ease restrictions on closing smaller post offices. Neither is included in current postal reform bills before the House and Senate-and the unions want to keep it that way.

"The report proposes giving the Postal Service unfettered authority to close 'low activity' post offices without first seeking citizen involvement," said William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union, the largest postal union. "This power to close local post offices would be a disaster for small businesses and for rural America."

But the report pleased major postal customers. "We urge lawmakers to seize this moment and start the [reform] process today," said Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of the Direct Marketing Association.

House and Senate panels are planning to examine the commission report next month. Most of the report is "reflective of the legislative efforts we've been leading for a decade," said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Special Panel on Postal Reform and Oversight. McHugh has introduced several postal reform bills over the past 10 years, including a bipartisan bill last year co-sponsored by Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a Sept. 3 hearing to examine the commission report. A member of that panel, Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., is the principal Senate sponsor of postal reform legislation. Based on the McHugh-Waxman bill, the Carper measure would give the service greater flexibility in setting rates while setting up a strong regulatory commission to oversee competition with commercial mailers.

Carper has praised the recent report by the presidential commission, particularly for recommending the service remain a public entity. "The commission instead recommends the creation of a smaller, more flexible postal service that would be better able to compete in a world in which innovations like e-mail and electronic bill pay will only grow in popularity," Carper said.

While optimistic that reform legislation will pass, the bills' supporters do not agree on when. "The positive news is that the commission's biggest recommendations, including greater pricing flexibility and a stronger regulatory board, are a good indication that [the McHugh-Waxman bill] is on the right path," a McHugh aide said. But controversial aspects of the commission's report, the aide added, would probably delay reform until next year.

"There's no silver bullet to save the Postal Service," the aide said. "But we can at least get a good handle on the commission's recommendations this fall."

A Carper aide, however, was more optimistic. "There's no reason," the aide said, "why this can't be completed this fall."

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