Hard to believe, but true. After 10 years of effort, the House Government Reform Committee this week approved a bill that would overhaul the U.S. Postal Service.

It's the first major bill to head to the House floor in three decades, according to the committee. The bill was steered through the committee by committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and approved 40 to 0. Its chief author is Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), who has worked to bridge differences among big mailers, unions and the post office.

The Senate also is preparing to plunge into a postal reform debate. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Thomas Carper (D-Del.) put a draft bill into circulation this week to get feedback from the mailing industry and postal unions.

Although the bills appear to have broad support in the mailing industry, they must survive debate in the Congress and likely opposition from the Bush administration.

Despite the reservations of the administration, the House and Senate bills would return responsibility for funding the military cost of postal retiree pensions to the Treasury Department, saving postal ratepayers at least $27 billion, and would free up billions in civil service retirement savings that have been held in escrow for the Postal Service.

The Civil Service Retirement System allows military service time to be added to an employee's pension. In most cases, CSRS pension costs related to military service benefits are paid by the Treasury through appropriations. But last year, as part of a bill sorting out postal pension contributions, Congress made the Postal Service responsible for pension costs linked to military service.

In a statement hailing the committee's Wednesday vote, Davis called last year's shift of the liability "an accounting gimmick" that must be reversed if the Postal Service's long-term financial problems are to be successfully addressed.

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, however, has opposed reassuming the pension costs for military service -- apparently because it would make it harder to reduce the federal deficit. In March testimony to Congress, Snow said allocating such pension costs to the Postal Service was "a fair and equitable allocation of costs" and "financially prudent."

But Neal Denton, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, said Treasury's position is "purely a money grab that is going to cost all of the mailers and postal workers by the time it is over." He added, "I'm calling it a stamp tax."

In a review of postal reform issues, David C. Williams, the postal inspector general, concluded "it is not appropriate for Postal Service customers to pay, through postage, for these costs when military service protects all Americans. As such, all taxpayers have a responsibility to bear the costs of a common defense through tax dollars. The use of stamps to pay defense costs is, in essence, a 'hidden tax' on Postal Service customers."

Major provisions of the House bill, Davis said, would revamp how postal rates are set and bring them in line with annual changes in the consumer price index, grant subpoena power and increase the oversight of the Postal Rate Commission and mandate several studies that could be used to make future changes to postal operations.

The Senate draft bill includes a proposal to reduce disability payments provided postal workers who are injured and sometimes cannot return to work.

Currently, injured employees who have a dependent can receive 75 percent of their salary as a tax-free disability payment. Employees may elect to continue receiving disability pay after they are eligible for retirement.

The Senate bill appears designed to encourage older workers to take retirement. The bill would cut disability payments to 50 percent of salary for those workers injured on or after Sept. 30 if they qualify for retirement benefits.

Talk Shows

Denise P. McKenney, a federal mediator, will be on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com.

James C. Reardon, chief information officer for the Defense Department's Military Health System, will be on "The Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

"Proud to Be an American" will be the topic on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com