House panel clears postal measure

The House Oversight Committee cleared a measure on Wednesday that would direct the U.S. Postal Service to move away from door-to-door delivery, a step supporters say would save the cash-strapped agency $2 billion a year.

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Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) cast the measure as an interim step on the way to a broader overhaul of USPS, which is stalled after more than three years worth of effort.

Issa’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), passed the panel on a party-line 18-13 vote.

The measure would force the Postal Service to switch about 15 million addresses to a centralized delivery point like a clusterbox over a decade. Oversight Republicans say that means less than 1 percent of households would be affected by the proposal each year.

Issa and his supporters also made clear that they didn’t want the bill to make it harder for the elderly and the disabled to get their mail, inserting a hardship provision for those customers.

“While the Secure Delivery for America Act will not replace a comprehensive overhaul that the United States Postal Services requires to become financially solvent, it provides an interim opportunity to achieve some significant cost savings,” Issa said in a statement.

“Modest moves away from door delivery to secure clusterbox and curbside delivery would save the Postal Service billions while offering customers new benefits."

Still, the California Republican also made clear that he’s interested in a broader postal reform measure, and still wants to leverage the White House’s own postal proposals to get Democratic support.

Both President Obama and Issa have called for allowing the Postal Service to limit Saturday delivery and more centralized delivery. Issa had sought to push legislation in recent weeks modeled after Obama’s proposals, but was forced to call off a planned mark-up.

House Democrats broadly oppose both those ideas, and dozens of congressional Republicans also support keeping full six-day delivery. Postal officials have said they want to continue delivering packages on Saturday, but halt letter delivery.

USPS lost $1.9 billion in the last quarter, and has lost well over $20 billion over the last two and a half years. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has urged lawmakers to give the agency broader authority to both cut costs and open new revenue streams.

Democrats said Wednesday that Issa’s latest proposal was an improvement over his previous ideas, but still fell well short of what the Postal Service needs.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat, noted that postal customers could pay to keep door-to-door delivery, and Democrats have also said that shifting to clusterboxes could be a logistical challenge in more urban areas.

“This provision threatens to create a 'Cadillac lane' within our nation's Postal Service,” Cummings said. “I continue to urge the Committee to work together on a comprehensive and bipartisan reform package to put the Postal Service on a sustainable financial path.”

Postal unions also said they oppose the measure, saying that lawmakers should instead concentrate on the retiree prepayment. Defaults on those payments have accounted for the vast majority of the agency’s losses in recent years.

Issa noted that door-to-door delivery costs more than twice as much as delivering to clusterboxes – $380 per address a year to $170. Curbside delivery costs roughly $240 a year.

But the Government Accountability Office has also questioned the savings that the Postal Service has projected it can wring from clusterbox delivery, noting the estimates are based on two-decade old figures.