When the Postal Service Board of Governors convenes Monday for its monthly closed-door session with Postmaster General William J. Henderson, the hot issue is certain to be why Henderson has warmly embraced legislation that his board chairman has denounced as "a rotten deal through and through."
Einar V. Dyhrkopp, the chairman, has made clear for more than a year that he vehemently opposes a measure being pushed by Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) that would revamp the way the federal agency sets stamp prices. The McHugh bill also would sharply reduce the governors' power over stamp prices.
Yet that was the very legislation that Henderson endorsed in a May 17 speech to the National Postal Forum in San Antonio. Henderson, who has been postmaster general barely a year, said he was speaking for "postal management" and not the nine presidentially appointed postal governors when he sided with McHugh, chairman of the House subcommittee on the Postal Service.
Besides, Henderson said McHugh has accepted amendments to his bill that would make it more palatable to postal managers. Those changes, strongly opposed by the newspaper industry, would give the agency power to negotiate special, reduced rates with big, bulk mailers.
"I think the board is very comfortable with what I did," Henderson said. "There is no discord between the board and myself. They understand that I'm just doing my job."
Still, many postal lobbyists were shocked to see a postmaster general, who serves at the pleasure of the governors, out of step with his chairman on a major piece of legislation.
In an interview last week, Dyhrkopp, the former mayor of Shawneetown, Ill., said the governors had never taken a formal position on McHugh's legislation because they did not believe it had a chance of passing. They will discuss it Monday, he said.
Most postal lobbyists say the bill's chances of passage remain very slim. But Henderson, who had to publicly assure McHugh earlier this year that he was not out to kill the legislation, has pushed the bill back to center stage. He said he endorsed the bill at McHugh's request but that as a federal official he can't lobby for its passage.
Some postal lobbyists tend to be highly cynical about Henderson's move, saying the concessions he won from McHugh are relatively minor. They say that what Henderson has done is set the stage for a fight on the House Government Reform Committee between Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who has endorsed the McHugh bill, and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who is promising an alternative.
Waxman's bill supposedly will strip provisions that postal labor unions dislike from McHugh's bill and give new powers to the Postal Rate Commission, something the Postal Service doesn't like.
"This doesn't have anything to do with the Postal Service," said one supporter of the McHugh bill who asked not to be named. "It has do to with power. With Henry Waxman shoving this down Dan Burton's throat to show him he doesn't have the votes on his own committee."
Several Republicans on the Burton committee have expressed concerns about the private corporation that McHugh would allow the Postal Service to establish for its nonpostal products, such as telephone cards and T-shirts. Postal officials have maintained they have to have flexibility if their agency is to survive in the face of e-mail and other forms of competition.
Dyhrkopp and other critics say the private corporation would become a bureaucratic nightmare with postal lawyers guaranteed full-time employment directing its every step. "This is setting the road map for the demise of the Postal Service," Dyhrkopp said.
Deputy Postmaster General Michael S. Coughlin, who has twice been a leading candidate for the top job at the Postal Service, is retiring July 2.
After 32 years as a postal employee, Coughlin, 59, will be a consultant to Computer Sciences Corp. He served as the No. 2 postal officer for 12 years.
Coughlin was twice passed over for the job of postmaster general, in 1992 when the Postal Service board of governors selected Marvin T. Runyon and in 1998 when Henderson was given the job.
There has been no announcement of a successor. But three names are being widely mentioned, chief operating officer Clarence Lewis, general counsel Mary Elcano and chief financial officer M. Richard Porras.