Senate panel clears postal measure

The Senate Homeland Security Committee easily cleared a measure to overhaul operations for the U.S. Postal Service on Thursday, overcoming months of struggle within the committee and deep opposition from outside groups.

The panel passed the bill from Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the Homeland Security chairman, and Tom Coburn (Okla.), its top Republican, by a 9 to 1 vote.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was the only committee member to vote against the bill, though four others — Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — also signaled that they opposed the legislation.

In a statement, Carper cast the vote as a balanced approach that forced all interested parties to sacrifice, and said that the shrinking losses for the USPS shouldn’t fool lawmakers into not plowing ahead on postal reform. The House Oversight Committee passed a postal bill of its own last summer on a party-line vote.

“We took a big step today, but we are not even halfway there yet,” Carper said. “We now need to bring these bills to both the Senate floor and the House floor for votes so we can create a conference committee to hash out the differences.

“Clearly, this is no easy task and we have a lot of work ahead of us,” the Delaware Democrat added. “It’s time that Congress and the Administration work together to save the Postal Service for the long haul.”

The Postal Service has been racking up red ink in recent years, but also saw its losses decline significantly in 2013 to $5 billion. Through the last several years of losses, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has urged lawmakers to come together on a postal reform package, and to get a bill to President Obama’s desk.

Carper has had to delay several markups in recent months, and stopped consideration of the bill last week so a couple of amendments could be modified. The Homeland Security panel contains senators from both parties from largely rural states, who had previously expressed concern about the proposal’s potential impact on delivery standards.

The USPS’s 2013 losses include a default on a roughly $5.5 billion prepayment for future retiree healthcare. Carper and Coburn’s bill would restructure those payments to give more immediate relief, and pave the way for an entirely new healthy benefits program within the agency.

During Thursday’s markup, the committee also rejected a proposal from Paul that would allow customers to carry guns in postal facilities if consistent with local law, and an amendment from Tester that would have altered reforms to workers’ compensation provisions.

The panel unanimously accepted an amendment from Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) that would allow customers to carry firearms in the parking lots.

Carper and Coburn’s bill would also potentially open the door for paring back Saturday delivery, as well as door-to-door mail delivery, and would give the Postal Service more say in setting the price for stamps and the cost of other products.

Those proposals have each proven controversial, with the four postal unions saying the proposal concentrates too much on cutting services and not enough on growing new revenue streams.

“No business has ever succeeded by cutting service and lowering standards, and these strategies are not the way to reach long-term fiscal stability,” Jeanette Dwyer, the president of the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, said in a statement. “At nearly all levels, this bill fails both the Postal Service and its customers.”

During Thursday’s markup, Carper and Coburn also tried to assuage the concerns of large business mailers, who have said the measure would give the USPS too much control over its pricing structure. The bill would now allow the Postal Service’s regulator to accept or reject new proposed price structures from the USPS starting in 2017, and would make permanent a recently enacted temporary rate hike.

Mailing groups say the Carper-Coburn bill still gives too much power to the Postal Service. “The Senate bill is especially frustrating because the Postal Service so badly needs help from Congress, yet this bill isn’t it,” said Art Sackler, co-manager of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service.

“It will heap higher payments on an already struggling community, and reduce the ability of the Postal Regulatory Commission to ensure consumers, customers and competitors are treated fairly.”