A Lame-Duck Revival for Postal Service Overhaul?

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It's down to one last round.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said yesterday that she is not giving up on legislation that would overhaul the U.S. Postal Service and will try to win approval of the bill next month during the lame-duck session.

Collins said she has met with the chief Democratic sponsor, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), and has talked with White House officials about how to revive the bill. Various proposals are being discussed by mailers and others to see whether modifications can be made to get the bill moving, she said.

Still, Collins said, "I'm not optimistic I will be successful."

The Senate bill stalled in late September when the National Association of Letter Carriers objected to a relatively minor provision that would require a three-day waiting period before injured postal workers could begin drawing workers' compensation benefits.

The union said any workers' compensation changes should apply to all of the federal workforce, not just postal employees. The objection derailed Collins's effort just as the bill appeared to be nearing Senate approval.

"I'm still stunned that the bill did not pass," Collins said in an interview.

The letter carriers union has said it will not drop its objection to the bill, even though Collins got the White House to drop proposals that unions had claimed were dealbreakers, such as forcing injured postal workers into retirement rather than letting them continue to collect higher workers' compensation benefits.

The bill would resolve some multibillion-dollar funding issues for the U.S. Postal Service, link postage increases to a consumer price index, set up an expedited rate-setting process and provide enhanced discounts to big mailers that take over some postal work.

Collins, in what many of the largest mailers consider a big victory, got the White House to sign off on changes that would permit military pensions earned by postal workers to be paid out of the Treasury. This means the pensions' costs would not be passed on to mailers in the form of higher rates. The White House also agreed to use an escrow fund to finance future postal retiree health-care benefits.

Congress created the escrow fund in 2003 after learning that the Postal Service had been ordered to pay too much into a retirement trust fund. Postal payments into the fund, if unchecked, would grow to $105 billion by 2071. Unlocking the fund could add to the federal deficit, according to budget rules.

"I just find it inconceivable that the unions and mailers and other affected parties would walk away from a proposal that would put billions of dollars on the table," Collins said.

Even if a new bill could regain the union's support and keep the White House on board, the revised bill has to pass the House.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who has worked on versions of the bill, has expressed concerns about whether Congress should dictate a rate-setting formula, which he worries might lead the post office to reduce services in tight economic times. Waxman also wants to ensure that mailer discounts do not become sweetheart deals. House GOP conservatives, meanwhile, are afraid that the postal bill might shift some costs to taxpayers, making it harder to reduce the federal deficit.

Despite his concerns, Waxman supports a postal overhaul and thinks it is worth a lame-duck effort to resolve differences, an aide said.

"This is the year," Collins said. Without congressional action next month, she said, "I fear it will never pass."

Mansfield Fellowships

Federal employees with a strong career interest in U.S.-Japan relations may attend an information session Nov. 22 on how to apply for a Mike Mansfield fellowship.

The fellowships include a year of full-time language training and a year working in Japanese government offices. After completing the program, fellows return to their federal agencies. The application deadline is April 2.

For information, go to http://www.mansfieldfdn.org or contact Niharika Joe at joen@mansfieldfdn.org or at 202-347-1994.


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