Lawmakers Agree on Urgent Need to Overhaul Postal Service

Charles Dharapak/AP

Urgency was the prevailing sentiment at a Senate hearing on U.S. Postal Service reform Thursday.

“We need legislation now,” Postmaster General Megan Brennan told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“This is not something that should wait until the next presidential election,” agreed Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

“We’re almost too late, where we are,” warned Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

“You’re in a death spiral with your competitors,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told USPS officials.

“We’re already starting to see the casualties of legislation not being passed,” cautioned David Williams, the Postal Service’s inspector general.

“Literally, failure is not an option,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

All of this was music to the ears of Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the committee’s ranking member and perennial advocate for legislation to overhaul the cash strapped mailing agency. While competing interests among postal stakeholders have derailed each of Carper’s reform efforts since 2006 -- when the last major postal legislation was passed and signed into law -- the latest effort appears to have brought about more agreement.

Both Carper, author of the 2015 Improving Postal Operations, Service and Transparency (iPOST) Act, and Brennan agreed the fundamental tenets of a postal reform bill are transferring retirees to Medicare for health care, extending or making permanent the temporary price surge set to expire in April, increasing the flexibility to sell non-postal products and using USPS-specific demographics to prevent possible overpayment into the agency’s Federal Employees Retirement System account. Even the postal unions and some major players in the mailing industry agree on some of those core provisions.

In fact, those groups -- including the Postal Service itself -- have formed a coalition based on those ideas.

“That’s what’s really different,” National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando said after testifying at the hearing, referring to the more divisive approach taken in the 113th Congress. Also unlike the 2014 push for postal reform, ending Saturday mail delivery is now absent from the list of USPS legislative demands.

While Carper’s iPOST bill has won bipartisan support, a consensus around the key issues has still not taken shape. Johnson, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairman, has said the committee might want to consider taking a more measured approach.

“Sen. Carper wanted a touchdown,” Johnson said. “Maybe we should be thinking about a field goal.”

Carper rejected that thinking after the hearing, saying there is still time to reach a grand agreement.

In his college days, Carper said, “We would never kick a field goal on the first or second or third down. We might kick it on fourth down, and hopefully make it. But it’s not fourth down and goal to go. It’s probably first or second down.”

Ultimately, he conceded, “we might have to kick the field goal,” but for now he said he is focusing on delivering a comprehensive bill.

“There seems to be a lot of concurrence,” Carper said of the various stakeholders, “and I’m encouraged by that.”

Even Johnson agreed on some elements of reform, including the need to extend the “exigent” price increase, allowed on a temporary basis by postal regulators only until the agency recoups the money it lost during the recession. Johnson took issue with the proposal to shift postal retirees onto Medicare, however, saying it would place a $100 billion liability on taxpayers. He also decried the Postal Service for not presenting a clear view of its finances.

“This is the problem [I've been] having for a number of years,” Johnson said. “I’m an accountant, I understand numbers, and I can’t get them.” The chairman promised to sit down with the postmaster general to get more clarity.

Lori Rectanus, director of physical and infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, set the stage at the hearing by laying out the major issues facing the Postal Service. The agency must determine: the appropriate level of compensation in “an environment of budgetary pressures,” the services offered and the pricing of those services, and how to balance the universal service requirement with the obligation to remain self-sufficient.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers spoke passionately in favor of maintaining universal service. Senators representing rural states repeatedly said their constituents, and they themselves, still depend on the mail delivery.

“Those who think the Postal Service is antiquated, you need to come up to my house,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “Without the Postal Service, I’m in a world of hurt.”

Going forward, Carper said he hoped to meet with Johnson, other members of the committee and their staffs to discuss what they learned from the hearing and what they must still address. While no one appears to be completely satisfied with the senator’s bill, there is some optimism.

“It’s not perfect,” Rolando said. “It needs work. But we’ll get there.” 

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