Senators pave way for tense USPS talks

A bipartisan group of senators released a legislative blueprint Wednesday that paves the way for tense negotiations with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) over how to fix the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service.

The bill — from Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — differs significantly from Issa’s proposal.

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The legislation includes major changes to how the agency pre-funds retiree healthcare benefits, and would give the Postal Service access to a $6.9 billion surplus in a federal fund to help transition 100,000 or more employees into retirement. 

Issa and House Republicans say that money is merely a projected surplus, and their bill would only give USPS access to retirement funds in cases of a more concrete surplus. 

In another key difference, Issa’s bill would empower a new oversight board to recommend post office closures and other ways to cut costs.

The Senate bill does not set up such a board. It also keeps the agency from scrapping Saturday delivery service for at least two years, and includes certain benchmarks USPS must meet before a five-day delivery system would be allowed.

Still, a spokesman for Issa said the House Oversight chairman applauded his Senate colleagues for examining how to fundamentally overhaul USPS. 

Spokesman Ali Ahmad said in a news release that House Republicans look forward to “continuing discussions to find a bipartisan and bicameral approach to reforming and protecting the long-term viability of the Postal Service.” 

The bipartisan Senate measure will be marked up next Wednesday in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on which all four senators serve in top positions.

At a news conference announciing their proposal, the senators said their bill would help protect millions of jobs at a time when the U.S. economy remains sluggish.

The lawmakers acknowledged USPS and various other stakeholders and unions — not to mention House Republicans — will not embrace every aspect of their bill. But they characterized their legislation as the best way to ensure that regular U.S. mail service survives. 

“We are not crying wolf here,” said Collins, ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee. “The Postal Service literally will not survive unless comprehensive legislative and administrative reforms are undertaken.”

Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Reform subcommittee that oversees USPS, added: “We’re trying to do everything we can to save jobs in this country, trying to do a lot to preserve jobs.”

The proposal comes several weeks after the House GOP postal overhaul bill cleared the Oversight Committee, and as policymakers of all stripes agree that USPS faces broad financial challenges.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told lawmakers in September that the Postal Service was on track to lose as much as $10 billion in the 2011 fiscal year, and would also face steep losses in 2012. 

The agency has also seen total mail volume decline by more than 20 percent since a 2006 high watermark — a trend officials blame on technological advancements and the bleak economy. 

While some stakeholder groups were pleased by the senators’ product, postal unions were far from impressed.

Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, chided the lawmakers in a news release for opening the door to ending Saturday delivery and including a framework for moving away from door-to-door delivery. 

“This would negatively affect tens of millions of Americans — particularly senior citizens, rural residents and small-business owners — who depend on the Postal Service’s commitment to high-quality service,” Rolando said. 

Meanwhile, Art Sackler, coordinator for the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, an outfit that represents private-sector groups that want USPS to survive, said the senators had come up with a “smart and balanced approach.” And Reed Anfinson, president of the National Newspaper Association, said in a release that “the Senate sponsors have shined a light on a path that helps America maintain its treasured postal system.”

The Senate bill builds on separate USPS proposals that Collins and Carper previously released this year.

As it stands, the Postal Service is mandated to pay $5.5 billion per year over a decade to pre-fund retiree healthcare benefits. In recent weeks, Congress pushed the deadline for the healthcare payment to mid-November.

Under the Senate bill, the retiree healthcare payment would be spread out over 40 years, and the payments could be reduced if the agency and postal unions reached other agreements that could lower the service’s healthcare liability for future retirees.

After two years, the bill would also allow USPS to move forward with its plan to scrap Saturday delivery, but only if the agency had taken advantage of all the cost-cutting measures in the Senate bill and after it had singled out and found ways to help customers who would be disproportionately hurt by the switch.

The senators also said Wednesday that a quarter of the Federal Employees Retirement System surplus would likely be used to incentivize postal workers into retirement. The rest of the funds could be used to shore up other financial areas for USPS, which said in September it was fast approaching its $15 billion borrowing limit with the federal government.

Like the House bill, the senators are also pushing to move USPS away from door-to-door delivery and toward distributing mail at sidewalks or in centralized neighborhood locations.

The senators’s plan would allow USPS to traffic in non-postal items — as long as the agency didn’t unfairly hurt the private sector — and to ship beer and wine.  

“We need to be able to demonstrate that we can govern,” Carper said Wednesday. “That we can take on a big problem. That we can solve that problem. And this is a big one. The situation is dire.”