David Goldman/AP

Postal Reform Nears End Zone, Lawmakers Say

Saturday mail delivery remains a sticking point.

Lawmakers on Wednesday said comprehensive, bipartisan legislation to overhaul the struggling U.S. Postal Service can be approved imminently, possibly by the end of March. 

“Last Congress we were in the red zone but not the end zone,” said Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. “We need to get in the end zone.”

Asked to testify at the Senate hearing, Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agreed a deal is within reach.

While bipartisan accord prevailed for most of the hearing, Democrats and Republicans largely disagreed on the Postal Service’s recent announcement it would cut Saturday mail deliveries. Republicans, such as Issa and HSGAC Ranking Member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., fully supported the change.

“In order to get comprehensive reform,” Issa said, Congress must “free the hands of the postmaster general in the way that was envisioned when the agency was made independent.”

Coburn also said Congress should get out of USPS’ hair and allow the agency to make its own business decisions.

“I don’t think many people have tougher job than the postmaster general,” the ranking member said. “There are really 536 postmasters general unfortunately and the goal of our reform should be to ensure there’s only one.”

Democrats, especially those from primarily rural states, complained a five-day delivery schedule for mail -- USPS would continue to deliver packages on Saturdays -- could mean customers will wait five or six days to receive letters, magazines and catalogues.

“If we’re going to have a mail service for urban America,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., “we damn well better have it for rural America as well.”

Postal worker unions similarly expressed concern regarding the new schedule, arguing it creates a larger window for private-sector competition to syphon USPS revenues -- ultimately coming at the expense of tens of thousands of Postal Service jobs.

“The postmaster general’s plan to eliminate Saturday delivery will destroy postal service,” said Jeanette P. Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association. “[He] was dead wrong when he said at his press conference he had talked to rural letter carriers and they supported five-day delivery. I can assure you they do not support it.”

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also testified before the committee Wednesday, passionately defending the decision to cut Saturday deliveries. When senators such as Carl Levin, D-Mich., questioned his legal authority to make such a change, he pleaded with lawmakers to allow the decision to stand.

“I am imploring Congress,” Donahoe said, “do not force us back to a six-day window.”

He added that while the new delivery schedule would save $2 billion annually, it was only the tip of the iceberg in regaining fiscal solvency for his agency. He called for more authority to make decisions -- including pricing power -- to adapt to market changes and to guide USPS  away from the Federal Employees Health Benefits System and toward its own, independent health care plan.

“We need to put every option on the table,” Donahoe said. “Resolving health care benefits won’t get us there on its own. We need to get every issue on the list.”

Eugene Dodaro, the U.S. Comptroller General and head of the Government Accountability Office, said USPS should continue to prefund retirees’ health benefits, but only to the extent it can afford to do so. He also called on Congress to ease the Postal Service’s burden in that area. The agency has long complained that the prefunding requirement is unfair; USPS was unable to make $11.1 billion in prefunding payments in 2011 and 2012.

GAO released a report Wednesday that accompanied Dodaro’s testimony and also recommended Congress modify the Postal Service’s collective bargaining statutes to ensure any binding arbitration is tied to the agency’s financial situation. It, too, called for increased flexibility for USPS officials to adapt the agency’s business model.

Postal Service officials and union representatives pointed to the growing list of opportunities for revenue growth, such as same-day delivery, using brick-and-mortar Post Offices to conduct multi-agency government business and secure digital services.

Cummings set the end of March as the goal in passing a Postal reform bill, as other lawmakers echoed the need for swift action.