For many years, postal reform was the poster child of a do-little Congress.
Each U.S. Postal Service financial report was more bleak than the last, accompanied by increasingly dire doomsday predictions. Yet pleas for help generated much talk on Capitol Hill and no action. Management and labor had stark differences, controversial plans to end six-day mail delivery sucked up much of the energy, and the acidic partisan divide always loomed.
There’s still plenty of talk, as demonstrated at a three-hour Senate hearing Thursday. But movement now seems more likely than it has in a long time.
Critical points of legislation introduced by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) were embraced at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. The postmaster general, the leader of the letter carriers union and a trade association representative all voiced support for the bill that has bipartisan backing.
Cutting Saturday mail delivery, once strongly pushed by postal officials, was barely mentioned. It’s a dead letter.
“There is a remarkable degree of consensus across a broad range of stakeholders — including the unions, postal management and a representative sample of mailing industry companies — about the most important reform elements,” said Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
Those elements of the legislation include reforming an onerous retiree health benefits prefunding obligation and requiring eligible retirees to participate in Medicare, allowing the Postal Service to provide new products and services, including the delivery of beer, wine and booze, making a 4.3 percent “exigent rate” surcharge permanent and using Postal Service specific financial assumptions when calculating pension liabilities.
The legislation is dubbed iPOST for the Improving Postal Operations, Service and Transparency Act.
“Medicare integration is the most important of these provisions, ” Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan said during the hearing. “In most cases, it will cost less for our employees and retirees, while providing them with the same or better health coverage.”
Her statement did not mention cutting Saturday delivery, which had generated much opposition. The USPS now is in a better position to let go of that plan, with recent improvements in its financial picture. The picture, however, still is not good.
“Our debt is at an unsustainable level,” Brennan said. The USPS has suffered a net loss for nine consecutive years, including $5.1 billion in 2015. Net losses from 2007 to 2015 totaled $56.8 billion.
While the USPS was suffering net losses, its recent past has a bright side, according to Rolando. He pointed to the agency’s operating profits of $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2014 and $1.2 billion in 2015. But they were “totally wiped out” by annual prefunding requirement charges, he said.
Although Carper’s legislation is getting off to a promising start, it’s too early to call it a done deal. He plans to meet with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is the committee’s chairman, and other colleagues soon in hopes of advancing the bill. Johnson has not taken a position on it.
The chairman said he will “attempt to find the areas of broad agreement that will address the immediate need for financial reform to protect postal customers and taxpayers from the results of inaction.”
Many in Congress, labor unions and customers had taken a position against elimination of Saturday delivery. The Postal Service got the message.
When asked what happened to the five-day plan, USPS spokesman David Partenheimer said in an email: “We are advancing a narrower set of policies. . . . Importantly, we believe the set of provisions for which we are advocating are capable of gaining broad support among key postal stakeholders. For a number of reasons, including our conclusion that there is no broad Congressional support in favor of 5 day mail delivery, we have not included it as a part of the legislative reforms that we are seeking.”
The plan to allow drinkers to get their brew, booze and Beaujolais delivered with the mail is an effort to “free the Postal Service to innovate and explore new business opportunities by removing dated restrictions in current law on the type of products and services they can offer,” Carper said. “This part of our bill would let the Postal Service do some specific things, like join UPS, FedEx and others in delivering beer, wine and spirits.”
John “Chip” Hutcheson III, president of the National Newspaper Association, which primarily represents weekly newspapers in small towns and rural areas, joined the call for urgent action, saying Carper’s bill “provides a viable foundation for this committee to move forward quickly to do what must be done right now.”
The Greeting Card Association also released a statement in favor of the bill. (Amazon.com, whose founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post, was listed among the association’s supporting organizations.)
“There seems to be a lot of concurrence,” Carper said after the hearing. “I’m encouraged by that.”