By Bernie Becker - 09/21/11 09:42 PM EDT
Democrats and Republicans fought bitterly Wednesday over proposals to save the U.S. Postal Service from financial ruin.
With the USPS perhaps just days away from insolvency, lawmakers sparred at a House Oversight subcommittee markup over what is needed to clean up the agency’s finances.
Republicans on the panel said their bill, which is expected to clear the subcommittee, would help control USPS labor costs, which account for around 80 percent of the agency’s expenses.
But Democrats complained that the GOP was shutting them out of the process and slammed the bill’s treatment of postal workers.
“We are the handwriters,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Oversight panel, citing Ross’s comments. “And we can create the kind of system that is long-lasting, that does not fire people in this difficult economy.”
The GOP bill was approved by the subcommittee in an 8-5 vote Wednesday evening.
The back-and-forth came just before the end of a fiscal year, when USPS says it will lose upwards of $10 billion. The agency says it is fast approaching its borrowing limit of $15 billion.
USPS has declared that it will not make a $5.5 billion prepayment for retiree healthcare costs that is due at the end of September. The stopgap spending measure that the House rejected Wednesday would have pushed off that payment until mid-November.
The House GOP bill would, among other steps, allow the agency to move to five-day delivery, move away from door-to-door delivery in some instances and create a new commission to recommend post office closures and other cost-saving steps.
Under the new Democratic bill introduced Wednesday, USPS could branch out into other areas to bring in fresh revenues, like check-cashing and facility leasing.
“Unlike other proposals that merely slash services, personnel and facilities, our bill allows the Postal Service to return to profitability while honoring commitments to workers and preserving quality service,” Cummings said in a statement about the measure.
House Republicans and the Obama administration are also not seeing eye to eye on the future of the agency.
The Obama administration unveiled its own plan to help the USPS this week. Under that plan, the government would return a $6.9 billion overpayment into a federal retirement program to the agency over a two-year span, while, as in the House GOP bill, USPS would transition to five-day delivery.
But Republicans on House Oversight have questioned the administration’s assertion that its proposals would cut billions, and are skeptical the government should give back the overpayment into the Federal Employees Retirement System, calling that a projected surplus.
An Oversight GOP staffer noted that the costs in the administration’s USPS plan — the retirement overpayment and a deferral of the retiree healthcare payments — would be borne by the taxpayers, while USPS alone would enjoy the proposal’s savings.
The Postal Service does not receive taxpayer money for operating expenses.
With that in mind, Oversight Republicans believe the president’s blueprint actually raises deficits another $10 billion to $20 billion.
The administration, meanwhile, argues that the costs and savings of the USPS proposals should be considered together.
Even with all the disagreements, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the full Oversight Committee and another key sponsor of the USPS bill, tried to foster a conciliatory tone at times during Wednesday’s markup.
Issa pledged to do whatever he could to make the House postal bill bipartisan, and also noted that some of the disagreements policymakers are mulling — such as whether to scrap Saturday delivery — cut across party lines.
“Sometimes there are problems, and they are not partisan,” Issa said.
Updated at 6:15 p.m.