Senate Dems seek to protect rural postal delivery

A group of Senate Democrats is pushing new legislation to improve mail service for their rural residents they say have gotten the worst of cuts from the U.S. Postal Service.

The bill from Sens. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (N.D.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSchumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever Red-state Democrats worry impeachment may spin out of control Overnight Energy: Lawmakers show irritation over withheld Interior documents | Republican offers bipartisan carbon tax bill | Scientists booted from EPA panel form new group MORE (Mont.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillIranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Ocasio-Cortez blasts NYT editor for suggesting Tlaib, Omar aren't representative of Midwest MORE (Mo.) and Gary Peters (Mich.) would speed up the mail delivery times that USPS has rolled back in recent years, make the current six-day delivery standards permanent and stop the Postal Service from closing any more mail processing centers for two years.

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Lawmakers who represent rural populations have been among the most strident critics of the Postal Service and former Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in recent years, saying their constituents remain reliant on the mail.

The USPS, which has lost tens of billions of dollars in recent years, has said its cost-cutting moves, which include reducing hours at rural post offices and shuttering dozens of processing centers, were needed to stay afloat.

But in an interview with The Hill, Heitkamp said she wasn’t buying that line. Following those changes, long-distance mail now arrives within three to five days less than two-thirds of the time. “It always seems like rural America takes the brunt of these decisions,” Heitkamp said.

The North Dakota Democrat added that she was skeptical that the Postal Service’s service reductions had much of an impact on the agency’s bottom line. “Those are big numbers, but we haven’t seen them bear fruit.”

Heitkamp said she hoped her bill could eventually be absorbed into a broader overhaul of postal operations — legislation that has long been the goal of Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperInstead of raising the gas tax, stop wasting money on frivolous projects To stave off a recession, let's pass a transportation infrastructure bill Overnight Energy: Trump tweets he's revoking California's tailpipe waiver | Move comes as Trump visits state | California prepares for court fight | Climate activist Greta Thunberg urges lawmakers to listen to scientists MORE (D-Del.) and others on Capitol Hill.

She also made it clear that the Postal Service is a lifeline for many of her constituents, including her mother-in-law, who gets her newspaper through the mail. Other residents rely on the Postal Service to get medicine and other essential supplies, and Heitkamp says she’s received more than 200 stories about mail problems through an initiative she first set up last year.

Heitkamp said she’s hopeful Megan Brennan, the new postmaster general, will be more sympathetic to rural issues than Donahoe. “Megan needs to understand that this is a major issue for those of us who represent rural America,” she said.

But Heitkamp also acknowledged the challenges her legislation faces. Carper, for instance, has been more willing to defer to the USPS on service reductions, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzHouse Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke GOP senators decline to criticize Acosta after new Epstein charges MORE (R-Utah) has yet to make postal reform a priority. Momentum for postal reform has stalled in recent years, as the agency’s finances have become more stable.

Plus, lawmakers seeking to overhaul the USPS face plenty of questions beyond rural delivery and the proposals in the new bill, including what to do about a required prepayment for future retirees' healthcare and stamp prices.

Still, Heitkamp said “our feeling was you have to lay down some markers” about what should be a priority in any broad postal legislation.