Postal reform revived in Senate

Two high-ranking senators released a bipartisan measure to overhaul the Postal Service (USPS) this week, as lawmakers search for an elusive deal to stabilize an agency losing billions of dollars a year.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — the chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee — both suggested that the bill they introduced Thursday was a work in progress.

But the measure, they added, could also help move Congress closer to enacting a postal fix, something lawmakers from both parties and chambers — at the urging of USPS executives — have been trying to do for years.

“This bill isn’t perfect and will certainly change as Dr. Coburn and I hear from colleagues and stakeholders, including postal employees and customers,” Carper said in a statement. “But the time to act is now.”

“This proposal is a rough draft of an agreement subject to change that I hope will move us closer to a solution that will protect taxpayers and ensure the Postal Service can remain economically viable while providing vital services for the American people,” Coburn said.

Carper has said throughout this year that he wanted to release a bipartisan postal bill, after he played a lead role in shepherding legislation written with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and then-Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) through the chamber in April 2012.

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Lawmakers in both parties tried to finish off a bicameral postal bill before the end of the last Congress but fell short.

The House never took up a measure from Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in the last Congress. Issa’s latest bill moderates some of his previous proposals but still failed to attract any Democratic votes on the committee last week.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, praised the latest Senate effort but said some of the bill's provisions have given him pause.

“I’m pleased that Senators Carper and Coburn recognize the urgency of comprehensive postal reform. While I am still reviewing the proposal, I have serious reservations about some of the provisions in the bill, but am hopeful that we can reach a resolution with bipartisan support in the House and Senate,” Cummings said.

Postal observers have wondered whether Carper would find as willing a partner in Coburn, who had been more of a hard-liner on forcing the Postal Service to cut costs than Carper’s previous co-sponsors.

The two senators have not said when they would hold a hearing or mark up their bill but are expected to push ahead after lawmakers return in September.

The USPS lost a record $15.9 billion in fiscal 2012, driven largely by defaults on some $11.1 billion in required prepayments for future retiree healthcare. The service has also seen dramatic declines in first-class mail volume in recent years, as consumers find more ways to communicate electronically.

At the same time, the rise in online shopping has increased the agency’s package-shipping business.

Carper and Coburn’s bill proposes to replace the retiree prepayments with a new way to prepare for future retirees that could cut costs in half. Currently, the USPS owes yearly payments of roughly $5.5 billion and has said it will likely have to default on the next scheduled installment as well.

The Senate measure also opens the door to ending full Saturday delivery in a year and would try to move the USPS away from door-to-door delivery in many cases. New businesses and homes would be forced into curbside or cluster box delivery, while existing addresses could shift upon request.

The bill the Senate passed in 2012 would have kept Saturday delivery in place for at least two years. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe tried this year to unilaterally end Saturday letter delivery while keeping package delivery but backed off amid congressional opposition.

Carper and Coburn’s bill paves the way for the USPS to gain up to $6 billion in projected overpayments into federal pension funds as well, and would place a moratorium on shuttering postal processing plants.

But while outside observers and fellow lawmakers praised Carper and Coburn for moving forward, the Senate bill also illustrated the problems Congress will have in reaching a final deal.

Postal unions and many Democrats in both chambers are against cutting services, including any parts of Saturday delivery — saying those sorts of moves will only eat into the agency’s current competitive advantages.

For his part, Issa used the bill’s introduction to press House Democrats, who opposed his bill’s proposal to end all but Saturday package delivery. Democrats also stood united against Issa’s plan to more aggressively implement the use of cluster boxes and curbside delivery than in the Senate bill.

“While we differ on approach in many areas, the Senate Postal Reform Act importantly includes provisions allowing for 5-day delivery of mail and delivery point modernization. In the House, Democrats decried these commonsense reforms as ‘extreme’ and ‘partisan,’” Issa said in a Friday statement. “I hope that Oversight Committee Democrats will change course and drop their partisan opposition to these bipartisan provisions and join me in working towards a reasonable, balanced Postal Reform Act.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other senators also pushed to make it harder to end Saturday delivery and close rural post offices in the 2012 Senate bill, and could seek other changes in the newest proposal.

Sanders made clear he wouldn't support the Carper and Coburn bill.

"While we all understand that the Postal Service is experiencing financial problems today and that changes need to be made, providing fewer services and poorer quality is not the way to save the Postal Service. That is why I am strongly opposed to this legislation," Sanders said.

— This story was last updated at 5:30 p.m.

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