Volume mailers look for service agreements in postal bill

Language codifying the U.S. Postal Service's ability to offer negotiated service agreements to large-volume customers might be included in Congress's conference report when the bill to overhaul the agency is finally approved, mailing insiders say.

Ben Cooper, who represents direct mailers at Williams & Jensen, said the language was originally kept out for fear that it might "open up more opposition to the bill."

The agreements serve as a tool for the agency to offer discounted rates to large volume mailers, but newspaper associations have long argued that they discriminate against smaller mailers.

The independent Postal Rate Commission determined in 2002 that the Postal Service could offer the rate deals; both the House and Senate overhaul bills are silent on the issue. But the president's commission that studied an overhaul of the Postal Service recommended that language on the agreements be included, and White House officials looking at ways for the agency to cut costs and boost revenues have floated the idea of including the provision in recent discussions with key House and Senate negotiators.

Having language in the bill would codify what the USPS has been doing, as well as establish guidelines.

Max Heath of the National Newspaper Association said his agency "lost the fight a long time ago" on the agreements, referring to the Postal Rate Commission's 2002 decision, but that representatives of his group nevertheless lobbied members of Congress on the issue when the overhaul bills were drafted. He said his organization maintains its opposition to the agreements.

Final approval of the legislation, which is 12 years in the making, has been stalled in recent months as members of Congress attempt to meet White House demands on the bill.

In a recent meeting, White House advisers called on Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., to find ways for the agency to cut its labor costs, which account for 80 percent of its budget.

Despite the gridlock on labor and other issues -- namely differences between the House and Senate on the Postal Service's inflation-based rate cap, how the agency should spend its escrow fund and whether to shift to the Treasury Department the cost of postal workers' military pensions -- Davis said he is still optimistic the bill will be sent to the president's desk by the end of the current legislative session. "We still have a ways to go," Davis said, "but it'll be out before October."

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