It wasn't too long ago, when the flamboyant William F. Bolger was postmaster general, that the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors was derided on Capitol Hill as a "rubber stamp," a dumping ground for political appointees who met two days a month to sign off on Bolger's grandiose projects.
One of the most vocal critics of the "do-nothing" board was Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee.
Now, in one of those twists that often characterizes official Washington, the "do-nothing" board is still under attack on the Hill -- but for opposite reasons. This time, the governors are being accused of "meddling" in the daily affairs of the mail service and "interfering" with the prerogative of the postmaster general.
One of the main accusers is none other than William Ford.
Much has happened since the early 1980s, when the "rubber stamp" accusation was still widely applicable. That was two -- and almost three -- postmaster generals ago, with Bolger retiring and being replaced by Paul N. Carlin, who was unceremoniously ousted after 12 months in office. He was replaced by former airline executive Albert V. Casey.
With Bolger's retirement also went the intimate, highly personal relationship that once characterized relations between the postmaster general and the service's overseers on Capitol Hill. During the old "governors-as-rubber-stamp" days, Bolger was left with a largely free hand to run the postal service, using patronage to keep congressional postal watchers happy.
Now Casey is preparing to leave at the end of the summer, as he promised when he took the job, forcing the board to make its third succession decision in less than two years. While Casey's departure was imminent, postal watchers said he too has grown frustrated by the board's often heavy-handed way of telling him how to do his job.
So it was no surprise when Casey, in an interview with wire service reporters, said he would back congressional legislation to give the postmaster general more power, although he was uncertain whether the president should once again appoint the postmaster.
Casey, in that interview, was asked specifically about a bill, sponsored by Ford and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), that would restore the president's power to appoint the postmaster general. Under the proposal, the postmaster would be chairman of the board of governors and both he and his handpicked deputy would be voting members.
The bill also would cut the number of times the board meets.
"I am extremely unhappy with the way the board of governors of the U.S. Postal Service has meddled in the management area that is supposed to be the prerogative of the postmaster," Ford said in a statement. The musical chairs at the postmaster general's office at L'Enfant Plaza came about, Ford said, because "all have found it impossible to do the job because of the meddling way the board has interfered."
The irony of this change in attitude is not lost on postal critics on the Hill. "The board has gone from being a do-nothing rubber stamp to a meddling, micromanaging entity," said one congressional staff member, speaking under the widely accepted ground rule that congressional aides do not allow themselves to be identified.
The Ford-Stevens bill was initially intended to send "a strong message of displeasure" to the board as it prepares to select Casey's successor, the staff member said. But although the idea was "to send shock waves through these people," the aide said Ford and Stevens now think the bill should be given serious consideration.
Van H. Seagraves, publisher of the trade newsletter Business Mailers Review, which has accurately reported inside information about L'Enfant Plaza, said the intent of the bill was to "send the governors a warning to pick a strong postmaster general and leave them alone." "These are the guys who two years ago were accused of being rubber stamps," Seagraves said. "You can trace the change back to the latter part of the Bolger era."
In the latter half of Bolger's tenure, the composition of the board began to change, as President Reagan's appointees -- some of them more opinionated and ideological -- began to assert themselves in personnel matters, in collective bargaining and in procurement issues.
When Casey's appointment was announced at a January news conference, board Chairman John R. McKean -- the most assertive of the Reagan appointees -- promised "you can expect some disinvolvement by this board in day-to-day decision-making." McKean went on to hold the podium for 20 more minutes, fielding tough questions while Casey stood by smiling.
That symbolism wasn't lost on postal watchers, including Ford and Stevens. If they have their way, when the next such news conference comes in a few months, the roles could be reversed.