Senate Panel Approves Postal Service Overhaul

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A Senate committee passed a bill to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service Thursday, sending a measure to the Senate floor that would drastically alter the agency’s business structure and its employees’ benefits.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee leaders, Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., originally introduced their bill in August and have modified and rallied support for it over the last five months. The committee, which heard significant criticisms from various members in two markup sessions over certain details of the bill, ultimately approved the measure overwhelmingly in a 9-1 vote.

The bill’s more controversial elements remained intact: moving postal workers to their own health care plan within the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, shifting costs for retirees’ health care to Medicare, reducing workers’ compensation for the entire federal workforce, phasing out to-the-door delivery and reforming the Postal Service’s pricing structure. USPS price caps and oversight responsibility for rate setting remained major sticking points as the committee debated the bill during the markup.

Ultimately, the committee adopted an amendment co-authored by Carper and Coburn that would maintain the Postal Service’s recent “exigent” rate increase, plus an inflationary bump in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, USPS would have the option to create a new pricing system, which its regulatory body -- the Postal Regulatory Commission -- would then have the authority to veto. This proposal was seen as a compromise from the original bill, which would have given the Postal Service far more flexibility in setting its own prices.

Coburn said the cash-strapped Postal Service should determine its own pricing as it would not make a decision that damages its business, adding if had been able to raise rates like FedEx or UPS, “we would not be here today.”

Still, the compromise was not enough for several Democratic senators, such as Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who voted against final passage -- though most of those no votes were “by proxy,” meaning they were not a part of the official tally.

The issue of carrying guns into post offices -- currently prohibited under federal statute -- also consumed significant debate, though the measure was not ultimately adopted. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., repeatedly pushed for an up-or-down vote on his amendment without any other provisions tacked on, which Democrats said was politically motivated and intended to force red-state members of their caucus to cast a tough vote in an election year. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, voted against Paul’s measure but introduced a separate amendment that would allow postal customers to bring their firearms onto parking lots but not into the actual post office, which passed easily.

Some criticisms of the original bill were addressed, such as eliminating Saturday mail delivery. Five-day delivery would not kick in until the Postal Service delivers fewer than 140 billion pieces of mail for four consecutive quarters, or by late 2017, whichever occurs later. Additionally, future post office closures would be prohibited and mail processing center closings delayed. The much-maligned retiree health care prefunding requirement would be significantly eased by the Medicare provision, and outstanding payments amortized over 40 years.

Negotiations on the bill were heavily involved, forcing the cancellation of three previously scheduled markups and a one-week intermission after last week’s attempt to move the legislation to the Senate floor continuing up until the final moments of Thursday’s debate. The panel’s Thursday meeting was delayed as Carper and Coburn huddled with various members of the committee to go over the details in the bills and its amendments.

Postal unions and professional organizations representing the mailing industry remain starkly opposed to the bill, saying it would cut services and jobs. Another key player, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has passed its own postal reform bill without any Democratic support, applauded his Senate counterparts for their efforts but declined to endorse their bill outright.

“I appreciate the hard work of Chairman Carper and Ranking Member Coburn, and I look forward to votes in the House and Senate that will allow us to bring the postal bills to conference,” Issa said in a statement to Government Executive.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor; a postal reform measure passed the Senate in 2012 with 62 votes but died in the House despite intense bicameral negotiations. The House has yet to vote on Issa’s legislation. 

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