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Postal Service bill passes key House committee

A Republican plan to stabilize the financially struggling U.S. Postal Service by dropping Saturday letter delivery, phasing out door-to-door service and removing no-layoff clauses from future union contracts cleared a key House committee late Wednesday.

The legislation, spearheaded by Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), backs down from some of his proposals in the last Congress, which failed to agree on a restructuring plan.

The bill passed 22 to 17 on a party-line vote; Democrats disagree with several provisions that they said would hurt labor unions. Even if the plan passes the GOP-controlled House, it needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“The Postal Service isn’t just broke,” Issa said before lawmakers debated his bill, noting that the agency is facing insolvency. He described the mail system as an “absolute federal entity that delivers your right to communicate and be communicated with. It must be saved.”

The agency lost close to $16 billion in the last fiscal year as mail volume continued to plummet. Postal Service officials defaulted on two $5.5 billion payments to set aside health care for future retirees, another financial burden causing huge losses.

As its revenue has fallen, the agency said it is hampered by more workers and facilities than it needs. By law, it cannot raise prices faster than the rate of inflation. Legal restrictions also keep it from easily expanding into new products or services.

Congress has worked to address these obstacles for two years but has bumped up against competing demands of unions, mailers and lawmakers representing rural districts.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, said he plans to introduce a Senate bill soon. “While we differ in our approach in some areas, Chairman Issa and I are united in our commitment to restoring the Postal Service to solvency,” Carper said in a statement.

Issa’s bill rolls back previous proposals to close money-losing post offices and force labor unions to open existing contracts to eliminate no-layoff rules. Those rules would change only in future pacts, a concession to unions and Democrats.

The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) and Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), also includes some Democratic priorities, among them easing restrictions on new lines of business. It also would give the Postal Service a break on the annual fixed payments it makes for retiree health costs and switch to an actuarial model that’s also favored by Democrats.

But the biggest stumbling blocks for Democrats were the changes to when and where mail is delivered.

“The bill before us today contains extreme provisions that would degrade the Postal Service,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the oversight committee’s top Democrat, calling the bill “partisan” while acknowledging that it had improved.

Democrats have long opposed five-day delivery because the change would threaten the jobs of thousands of letter carriers and other Postal Service employees.

Republicans also have made a priority of phasing out door-to-door delivery in favor of clustered boxes on street corners. The change could save $4 billion annually by 2022, according to Postal Service officials and Issa’s staff.

The Postal Service has gradually been shifting to a centralized delivery system in shopping malls, strip malls and business parks. Cluster boxes have been used in residential construction areas since the 1980s.

In a statement, Postal Service officials said that while door-to-door delivery in older neighborhoods “would allow the Postal Service to deliver mail to more addresses in less time,” the shift in residential neighborhoods is not in its five-year plan.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) questioned whether a curbside system would work in densely populated urban areas with limited space. More broadly, he described Issa’s bill as a GOP effort to “strangle” the Postal Service by turning away customers.

“There is a view that by cutting back service somehow we’re going to revive the Postal Service in America,” Connolly said. “We’re almost surely condemning it to an accelerated decline.”

Republicans turned back about a dozen amendments from Democrats to keep door-to-door delivery, no-layoff rules and other
labor-friendly provisions.

“Today we’re in a different era than the 1970s,” Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) told Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) when Lynch tried to keep no-layoff rules. “No-layoff protections have disappeared from the private sector.”

In a statement, the National Association of Letter Carriers called ending door-to-door delivery a “losing proposition” that would hurt the elderly and those who live in areas with extreme weather.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.


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