By Bernie Becker - 04/27/12 10:07 PM EDT
The Postal Service will not immediately close facilities after a self-imposed moratorium expires next month, its top official said Friday.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said that USPS would move methodically on its consolidation plans, and that the lion’s share of local post offices could remain open in the months after the moratorium ends, perhaps for shorter hours.
“Our date of the 15 is not a date that we’re going to make all kinds of changes. It’s never been intended to be a shutdown date for anything,” the postmaster general told C-Span’s “Newsmakers” in an episode scheduled to air Sunday. “Any changes we make will be incremental over the course of the summer.”
As it looks to consolidate operations, USPS, which is aiming to cut $20 billion in annual costs by 2015, had announced that it was taking a closer look at thousands of local branches and scores of processing centers.
But Donahoe suggested Friday that his agency had never intended to close all of those facilities.
“From a post office standpoint, the word closure is a word we’re never used. We’ve said evaluate,” Donahoe said. “Closure is kind of an interesting word that’s all over the news and gets people riled up. And in some cases for no good reason.”
“It’s very reasonable on these smaller post offices that we can work out an arrangement, that we can get the costs in order and we can keep them open.” he added, after getting pressed over whether post offices would be closed in the months after the moratorium ends.
Donahoe’s comments come just days after the Senate passed a bipartisan postal bill, and as members in both chambers have called on the Postal Service to extend its moratorium.
The Postal Service had agreed to the hold off on any closures late last year, after lawmakers asked for time to negotiate postal reform measures. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was the driving force behind many changes to the Senate bill, has also said that he wants to meet with Donahoe after lawmakers return to the Capitol from next week's recess to discuss the moratorium.
Washington officials on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the Postal Service, which hemorrhages roughly $25 million a day, needs help getting on more solid fiscal ground.
The agency has seen mail volume decline in recent years, as Americans use more electronic means of communication, and was also hit hard by the economic downturn.
Donahoe also said Friday that he hoped that Congress could finish its work on postal legislation by the end of May, and that a measure that cherrypicked the best parts of bills in the House and Senate could put USPS on solid ground once and for all – even if mail volume continues to fall.
But at the same time, Donahoe added that officials on Capitol Hill have not given him confidence that they could meet that timeline.
Even though the Senate has cleared its proposal, the House has yet to schedule a vote for a Republican postal reform bill that cleared the Oversight Committee last October.
Those two proposals are also quite different, and would need to be reconciled before potentially needing President Obama’s signature.
The House measure would allow USPS to more quickly implement cost-cutting measures like scrapping Saturday delivery and shutting down facilities, but does not give the agency much relief from a roughly $5.5 billion annual prepayment for retiree health care costs.
In the Senate, lawmakers would spread those prepayments out over four decades. But senators have also added provisions to the bill that would make it harder for USPS to consolidate operations and says two years is the soonest that the agency could move to five-day delivery.
“We really want to make this the last time,” Donahoe said. “Between what’s in the Senate bill and what’s in the House bill, there could be a very good compromise in conference.”
Sponsors of the Senate legislation, and some House Democrats, have urged the House to move forward with legislation so that the current differences can be settled.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight panel, said the Senate passed an unacceptable measure that had “devolved into a special interest spending binge that would actually make things worse.”
But some Democrats have criticized the GOP approach as too heavy-handed, saying that the Postal Service needs to be reformed in a way that would give it more revenue-raising opportunities.
Donahoe said Friday that, while his agency welcomed the chance to find new revenues, it needed to cut to get in line with current mail volumes.
On Friday, Capitol Hill officials on both sides of the debate said they were heartened by Donahoe’s most recent comments.
Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Issa, said that the Postal Service needed to act quickly and wouldn’t be long for this world if the Senate bill became law.
“It is encouraging to hear the Postmaster General say he intends to move forward with efforts to cut costs,” Ahmad said in a statement.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del said that he was encouraged that the Postal Service was looking at reducing hours or locating post offices in already open businesses, ideas that were included in the Senate bill.
“Now the House must act and I remain hopeful that they will do so before May 15,” said Carper, one of the four sponsors of the Senate bill.