Postal Service asks Congress for billions to protect mail, bail out agency

Postmaster General John Potter asked Congress Thursday for at least $5 billion to safeguard the nation's mail against attacks by bioterrorists and make up for revenue lost since Sept. 11. Of the total amount, $3 billion to $4 billion would be used to purchase and install irradiation equipment and educate employees on its use, and to perform environmental testing and cleanup at postal facilities, Potter told members of the Senate Treasury and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee. Potter also requested $2 billion to make up for revenue lost after the events of Sept. 11 and recent anthrax scares. Revenue for Oct. 6 through Nov. 2 is $327 million less than what was projected prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Postal Service estimates. The Postal Service estimates that mail volume has shrunk by almost 7 percent compared with the same time period last year. Even before the war on terrorism, the Postal Service expected losses of more than $1.6 billion this fiscal year. On Sept. 10, the board approved filing a rate case, the second in two years, seeking an overall increase of nearly 9 percent. In mid-October, President Bush announced plans to give the agency $175 million and the Postal Service's board of governors approved spending of at least $200 million to buy or lease irradiation equipment. But additional funding is necessary to safeguard the mail, Potter testified. According to Robert McLean, chief executive of the Mailers Council, an Arlington, Va.-based trade association, if Congress does not appropriate the additional money, the costs of making the mail safe will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher postage rates and cuts in service. The Postal Service must spend the money necessary to safeguard the nation's mail, whether the funding comes from Congress or some other source, Potter said. The Postal Service is self-funded, getting less than 1 percent of its operating budget from the general treasury. However, under Title 39 of the Code of Federal Regulations, the Postal Service can request a public service appropriation. The last time it received one was in 1982, according to McLean. Several lawmakers have voiced support for buoying the Postal Service through the anthrax crisis. Subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-S.D., compared the Postal Service to the nation's airlines, who also received a devastating and unexpected financial blow from the Sept. 11 attacks. Just as the government helped the airlines, "there is a legitimate need for a federal government contribution to assist the Postal Service as it addresses this crisis. As one who firmly believes in the mission of the Postal Service, I will support that effort," said Dorgan. However, President Bush said Tuesday he would veto any bill exceeding a $686 billion cap on the 13 regular appropriations bills and the $40 billion emergency supplemental already passed, setting the stage for a partisan battle over the funding. According to CongressDaily, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd of West Virginia is daring President Bush to make good on his veto threat, saying on Wednesday: "If he wants to veto more money for [fighting] anthrax, if he wants to veto more money for antibiotics ... let him do so. People in this country are under a cloud of fear and apprehension."