Senate Dems hit back against Lieberman's postal reform bill

A majority of the Senate Democratic Conference has taken issue with a postal service reform bill approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Twenty-six Democratic senators and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) voiced their objections in a letter to Lieberman and other members of the Homeland Security panel.

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“The Lieberman bill as it now stands will end the postal service as we know it,” Sanders, who organized the letter-writing effort, said in an interview. “It will allow the postal service to shut down half the postal processing centers in this country. You’ll slow mail delivery service and you’ll enter into a death spiral where fewer and fewer customers will use the postal service. It lays the foundation for shutting down thousands of post offices.”

The lawmakers’ letter argues “that significant improvements can be made to S. 1789 before it reaches the floor," referring to the bill number of Lieberman’s legislation, and that the signees "look forward to working with you to make that happen.”

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.); Susan Collins (Maine), the panel’s senior Republican; and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) received copies of the missive.

Sanders and his allies want Lieberman and Collins to change their measure to prohibit the U.S. Postal Service from ending the one- to three-day delivery standards for first-class mail.

Critics want the postal reform bill amended to make it more difficult to close rural post offices by requiring USPS to consider a community’s lack of Internet and broadband access before shuttering offices.

They contend the bill does not go far enough to preserve the delivery of mail six days per week. Lieberman’s bill prevents the postal service from eliminating six-day-a-week delivery for two years but allows for a truncated schedule if the Government Accountability Office determines it is necessary to achieve profitability.

The letter’s signatories want the ban on ending six-day delivery extended to four years. They say the delivery schedule could then be reduced only if the GAO determines it is the only viable option for the postal service to achieve long-term fiscal sustainability.

They also want Lieberman to expand efforts to explore innovative ways to boost postal service revenues. Specifically, they have proposed a blue-ribbon entrepreneurial commission to develop new business models.

Lieberman believes the postal service is already in a death spiral and needs to undergo major reforms immediately. Supporters of his bill argue it is less drastic than what the postal service itself has proposed to cut its operating deficits. They say it finds a viable political middle ground and that some Republicans favor much deeper cuts to the postal service.

Lieberman has clashed several times over the years with the majority of his Senate Democratic colleagues, most memorably when he endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president in 2008. Democrats briefly considered stripping Lieberman of his chairmanship.

The letter, dated Feb. 14, acknowledged that Lieberman’s bill is an improvement over the reforms recommended by USPS.

Sanders said Tuesday that there are other Democrats and Republicans who support the proposed changes to Lieberman’s bill but did not sign the letter.

Sanders and his allies believe the fiscal outlook for the postal service can be improved considerably by reducing the amount of funding it sets aside each year to pay future health benefits. The postal service now pays about $5.5 billion each year into its health benefits account.

Sanders, citing analysis by the postal service’s inspector general, says that payment can be eliminated or shrunk significantly, noting the health benefits fund stands at $44 billion and earns 3.5 percent to 4 percent of interest each year.

Sanders noted that “if you exclude the $5.5 billion in health payments, the postal service made a profit of $200 million.”

“You don’t have to put any more money into that retirement fund,” said Sanders. “In 21 years it is fully funded at $90 billion.”