There have been days when 2157 Rayburn House Office Building had the feel of a boxing match.
It’s the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee room where Republicans and Democrats have been known to go at each other with vehemence.
That wasn’t the case Tuesday.
Members on each side of the dais went out of their way to praise representatives from both parties for work on legislation designed to save the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) from financial ruin.
For more years than can be easily remembered, the Postal Service has pleaded with Congress for help with its financial situation. Members of Congress, along with postal unions and other interested folks, agreed that the financial picture was bleak, but consensus on getting out of the hole seemed beyond reach.
Now, with bipartisan legislation being considered in the infamously partisan House, hopeless no longer describes the USPS’s future. It’s not fixed yet, but the Postal Service Reform Act of 2017 provides a degree of optimism that for many years was absent.
“We’re actually going to get to the finish line and get a bill on the president’s desk,” Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told the hearing. “I’d like to see that as a bipartisan reform proposal that we can all get behind and champion. I didn’t get everything I wanted, Congressman (Elijah E.) Cummings didn’t get everything he wanted, but that’s the nature of coming up with a compromise without compromising your principles.” He and Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, made a point of thanking Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), who was a longtime postal employee.
“We’re faced … with 10 consecutive years of financial losses at the Postal Service, totaling some $62 billion. The United States Postal Service isn’t at ‘a’ crossroad, it’s at ‘the’ crossroads,” Chaffetz said. “It’s up to this Congress to address the challenges facing the Postal Service, its customers, the businesses that rely on it, and the taxpayers who will bear the burden if we fail to act.”
Much of what the bill would do is in the weeds of postal finances, dealing with the nitty-gritty of health benefits for employees and retirees, pensions, governance and contracting. Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan said the provision requiring postal retirees to fully participate in Medicare is key because that “would essentially eliminate our unfunded liability for retiree health benefits,” which has been a major driver of postal doldrums.
The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) objected to this proposal, saying it would mean a monthly increase in Medicare premiums of at least $134 for postal retirees. “All for health insurance coverage many postal retirees do not want, may not be able to afford, and have previously chosen not to take,” said a letter to the committee from NARFE President Richard G. Thissen.
For customers, the legislation would allow a one-cent increase in the price of a first-class stamp. Centralized, or cluster box, delivery would be used for homes where 40 percent of residents agree, with a waiver for the physically disabled. Before postal officials could close a local post office, they would have to consider the distance to the next one, the availability of broadband Internet service and local conditions, including weather and terrain.
In a demonstration of the exceptional unity around this bill, even the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service (C21), an organization of mailing industry trade associations and companies, endorsed the legislation, including the postage increase.
“To put it bluntly, mailers do not welcome rate increases generally, including this one. They are bad for business,” said Art Sackler, C21’s manager. “Nonetheless, we accept the necessity in this unique set of circumstances for the one-time across-the-board 2.15 percent increase … as, from our perspective, a necessary evil to assure longer-term postal financial stability.”
The bill would not end Saturday mail delivery, once strongly advocated by postal officials as a major component of their cost-saving strategy. Brennan acknowledged that would not fly with Congress.
Before the celebration over the bill begins, let’s recall that there has been hope before, only to have it wane as talk faded to inaction. At a January 2016 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, the postmaster general, the leader of the letter carriers’ union and a trade association representative all supported Sen. Thomas R. Carper’s (D-Del.) postal reform bill that increased hope but was not enacted.
Notably absent at that point was support from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate committee. Notably, the House bill, which includes some elements of Carper’s legislation, is a thoroughly bipartisan effort led by the oversight committee’s Republican chairman and ranking Democrat.
With that bipartisan backing, optimism grows. The mounting consensus around the House bill builds on the forward momentum generated at the Senate hearing and House committee approval of a bipartisan postal reform bill last year that was never considered by the full House.
“The need for postal reform is as urgent as ever. Fortunately, we also may be closer than ever to enacting reform,” Cummings said. “Only we can ensure that this 240-year old institution — an institution that connects every family, business, and community in this nation — will continue to be there to serve all Americans.”