Obstacles remain in House efforts to revamp struggling Postal Service

A new proposal from House Republicans may have moved Congress closer to enacting legislation overhauling the U.S. Postal Service, but a string of obstacles still remain. 

Democrats and organized labor groups said that the proposal spearheaded by Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) – while better than his previous efforts – was still lacking in key areas.

And while top postal officials have been pleading for congressional action for more than two years, postal reform has struggled to gain traction on Capitol Hill, even as USPS reports quarter after quarter of billion dollar losses.

“We’ve still got some issues,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat at House Oversight. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But there are going to be things we’re definitely going to have to fight.”

Plus, even if a bill passes the GOP-controlled House, the Democratic-held Senate has yet to act on postal reform, after passing a bill last April. The House and Senate bills would also likely need to be reconciled in a conference committee.

Still, GOP leaders are suggesting they could take more interest in the latest proposal from Issa, after declining to bring up the California Republican’s measure for a vote during the heat of last year’s presidential election.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Oversight panel and the GOP leadership team, suggested that the latest proposal could hit the House floor in the fall, after the August recess.

A spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who controls the House floor, also stressed that leaders thought revamping the Postal Service was important.

“The majority leader and Chairman Issa have discussed the issue multiple times,” the spokesman, Doug Heye, told The Hill in an e-mail. “We continue to work with the committee in hopes of getting this done.”

The House Oversight panel is scheduled to mark up the bill from Issa, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) on Wednesday. Democrats on the panel are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss how they’ll approach the new proposal.

Lankford, meanwhile, said that he thought lawmakers were steadily becoming more aware of the challenges facing the Postal Service, which lost close to $16 billion in fiscal 2012. The agency also continues to see a decline in first-class mail, as more and more potential consumers choose to communicate electronically.

Lawmakers representing rural districts – many of them Republicans – can have a particular interest in shoring up the Postal Service, so Lankford said he thought the House would be able to find time for the issue even as they grapple with big issues like immigration.

“Everybody hears about it at home,” Lankford said. “Everyone is engaged because everyone has a connection to the post office.”

“There’s a lot of energy nationwide to try to get this fixed,” the Oklahoma Republican added.

Issa’s latest effort incorporates suggestions from Cummings; Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), a senior Oversight member; and Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), who has pushed to limit the closure of rural post offices.

The measure would give the Postal Service a break from the requirement to prefund billions of dollars a year for future retiree healthcare – defaults on which caused most of the agency’s losses last year.

Issa is also rolling back previous proposals that would force the closure of unneeded post offices, potentially place the agency into receivership and undo already signed labor agreements.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, applauded Issa for moving forward with a bill, even as he noted that he would take a different approach in some areas.

“The hard truth is that our nation is likely closer than we have ever been to losing the Postal Service and the industries and millions of jobs that it supports,” Carper said. “That’s why it is imperative that Congress and the president come together around a set of meaningful reforms to right-size, modernize, and reform the Postal Service.”

Carper said he was hoping to roll out a bipartisan bill as soon as possible, with sources off Capitol Hill saying the Delaware Democrat is aiming for before lawmakers head home for the August recess.

Carper, Issa, Cummings and other postal negotiators also came close to hashing out a deal before the end of last year, and Democrats and Republicans from both parties have continued to stay in touch this year, as the two chambers hope to eventually get to a conference committee.

That approach contrasts with how lawmakers are handling other issues – including the manner in which Issa and Cummings are approaching the IRS’s targeting controversy and last year’s attack in Libya, among other matters.

All that and more has outside observers like Art Sackler, co-coordinator of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, feeling “very cautious optimism.”

“We’re really quite ahead of where we were,” said Sackler, whose coalition represents big companies in the mailing industry.

But as Sackler also noted, the differences that remain are in some cases substantial, and on crucial issues. Issa and Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, for instance, want to get rid of Saturday delivery outside of packages, a growing part of USPS’s business. Some Democrats and unions oppose that shift.

Jim Sauber, the chief of staff at the National Association of Letter Carriers, also said that Issa’s proposal did not do enough to ease the prefunding mandate, even as he gave the Republican credit for reaching out for labor’s ideas and moving in the right direction.

Sauber said the GOP plan doesn’t really ease the requirement, even if it does push back some payments.

“It doesn’t really examine the wisdom of prefunding,” Sauber said. “Their premise seems to be that the Postal Service is doomed.”