Lawmakers question postal regulator chief's travel as USPS bleeds cash

Key lawmakers have expressed concern that the Postal Service’s top regulator is spending too much time on the road at a time when the agency faces serious financial challenges.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) have suggested that Ruth Goldway’s trips are hampering the Postal Regulatory Commission’s (PRC) ability to offer advice about proposals that would change how mail is delivered in the United States.

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Goldway, who has served as chairwoman of the PRC since 2009, is currently attending a postal event in Switzerland, her third trip to that country in the past year. She has also traveled, in that same time span, to Belgium, China, Portugal, Puerto Rico and Scotland.

Concerned lawmakers say that, while Goldway has racked up more travel costs than her predecessor, their issue is more that the regulatory commission seems to be falling behind on its duties while the chairwoman is away.

The United States Postal Service (USPS), which the PRC oversees, lost more than $3 billion in the first quarter of fiscal 2012 and has said it could begin closing more than 200 mail-processing centers after May 15. 

But the PRC has indicated that its advisory opinion on the agency’s consolidation plan will likely not be ready until July, at the earliest.

A spokeswoman for Carper, one of four senators behind a bipartisan Senate plan to overhaul postal operations, said the PRC “should be focusing like a laser” on completing that opinion.

“Embarking on travel that does not appear to be closely related to the role the Postal Regulatory Commission has been given in addressing the Postal Service’s dire financial situation would appear ill-advised at this critical juncture,” said Carper spokeswoman Emily Spain.

Issa, the key figure behind the House GOP postal reform plan, has come to a similar conclusion.

“The committee finds Chairman Goldway’s travel decisions and absenteeism particularly troubling considering the grave financial situation of USPS, her role in reviewing the limited actions USPS is undertaking, and the fact that she has openly called for USPS to receive a taxpayer subsidy,” Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for the House Oversight Committee, told The Hill in a statement.

Goldway says that regulations her office must follow are delaying the advisory opinion on the processing centers, and that she stays on top of her commission work while traveling. 

Speaking to The Hill via telephone from Switzerland, the PRC chairwoman stressed that her commission is required by law to take a prominent role in international postal matters. Goldway is currently in Bern for a meeting of the Universal Postal Union, a group that deals with worldwide postal issues and usually meets twice a year.

But perhaps most of all, Goldway, a Democrat who has been at the PRC since the Clinton administration, sees the interest in her travel as something of a red herring, and driven by officials who disagree with her on certain postal proposals.

Over the last year, the PRC has released opinions questioning the wisdom of the Postal Service’s push to scrap Saturday delivery, and to shutter perhaps thousands of local post offices.

“This is something I’ve been attending since 1999,” Goldway said of the UPU meeting. “I can only assume that some people in the industry are concerned about my interest in preserving post offices and maintaining six-day delivery.” 

Postal proposals in both the Senate and the House would pave the way for USPS to move to five-day delivery and to consolidate operations.

Media outlets started reporting on Goldway’s travel last month, finding that the current chairwoman piled up more travel expenses than her immediate predecessor, Dan Blair.

Following those reports, Carper asked the PRC for detailed records of Goldway’s travel, saying that top officials “have a responsibility to set a good example when it comes to frugality and basic financial management.”

According to documents provided to The Hill, Goldway incurred more than $32,000 in government-sponsored travel costs in fiscal 2011, and was either traveling or away on travel for around 70 days. The PRC says those dates include weekends, holidays and personal days taken by Goldway.

Meanwhile, Blair’s recorded travel as chairman never topped $24,000 in any given fiscal year.

Goldway has suggested that her travel costs were higher than usual last year. But, in addition to the PRC’s international duties, Goldway also said that her travel schedule is necessary to meet with U.S. stakeholders on postal issues. 

In fiscal 2011, the PRC chairwoman jetted off to New York to discuss the Postal Service’s vehicle fleet and to Ohio to visit DHL sites, among other places. 

The chairwoman also argued that her travel expenses — and her agency’s total annual budget — are a drop in the bucket compared to how much it costs to run the USPS.

“The Postal Service spends that amount in 20 minutes,” Goldway said about the PRC’s roughly $14.4 million budget, which is not funded by taxpayer dollars. “And when you’re talking about my travel, the Postal Service can spend that in a blink of an eye.” 

Still, with Congress pressing to reform postal operations this year, lawmakers say it’s unfortunate that the PRC’s advisory opinion on the closing of mail processing centers won’t be ready for months.

USPS has said that the consolidations are a key part of its efforts to pare down its annual budget by $20 billion by 2015. But the closures will also, in many cases, eliminate next-day delivery of first-class mail. 

Goldway told The Hill that the PRC had to follow certain legal processes in developing their opinion, and added that commission had to wade through thousands of pages of documents on the issue and hear from dozens of interested parties.

“We’re going to try to do it in the most efficient manner possible,” said Goldway. “We simply aren’t able to do it as soon as some people want.”

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