Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill want to stop a Trump administration plan that envisions a privatized U.S. Postal Service. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Columnist

A hefty, bipartisan congressional coalition wants to ensure that the mail carriers who trudge through snow, rain, heat and gloom of night are federal employees.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly appear ready to block President Trump’s plan to privatize and diminish the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).

With Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) taking the lead and 27 co-sponsors, including five Republicans, backing her, a significant segment of the Senate joins the House in telling Trump that a privatization plan would meet stiff opposition in Congress.

McCaskill’s proposed Senate resolution, introduced last week, says “Congress should take all appropriate measures to ensure that the United States Postal Service remains an independent establishment of the Federal Government and is not subject to privatization.”

It is a companion measure to a House resolution introduced in July by Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.). That was co-sponsored by 36 Republicans and 196 of the chamber’s members.

With more than one-quarter of the Senate and almost half the House declaring opposition to USPS privatization, the plan seems like a lost cause.

McCaskill, in a tough campaign for reelection, focused her fight against privatization on the problems it would cause for rural constituents.

“Local post offices are the backbones of our rural communities — even more so now as small businesses rely on the Postal Service for the ability to participate in online business,” her statement said. “The incentives simply aren’t there for private companies to take mail that last mile for people living in rural communities, and I’m going to fight tooth and nail to ensure that every Missourian — whether in a small town or big city — has access to the critical services the Postal Service provides.”

The administration’s privatization plan is part of a grand, government restructuring effort unveiled in June. “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century” envisions a USPS that would provide fewer services to customers and cuts for employees.

“A private postal operator that delivers mail fewer days per week and to more central locations (not door delivery) would operate at substantially lower costs. A private entity would also have greater ability to adjust product pricing in response to changes in demand or operating costs,” the administration predicted. “Freeing USPS to more fully negotiate pay and benefits rather than prescribing participation in costly Federal personnel benefit programs, and allowing it to follow private sector practices in compensation and labor relations, could further reduce costs.”

The Postal Service has “extremely high fixed costs,” the administration argued, “as a result of relatively generous employee benefits combined with a universal service obligation that is understood to require mail carriers to visit over 150 million addresses six days per week.” With its chronic financial difficulties, USPS “can no longer support the obligations.”

Encouraged by the congressional resolutions, the National Association of Letter Carriers welcomed “such a strong bipartisan defense in both the House and Senate against what amounts to an attack not simply on letter carriers and other postal employees, but the American people as well. Privatization of the U.S. Postal Service would hurt both low-income and rural Americans especially who live in areas where it might not be profitable to deliver to them.”

Trump issued an executive order in April establishing a task force “to evaluate the operations and finances of the USPS.” It didn’t mention privatization, but it did say USPS is “the Federal agency with the highest public approval rating.” The task force includes Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney and Office of Personnel Management Director Jeff Pon or their appointees.

Stephen Kearney, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, said his organization met with task force representatives in May and was surprised in June by the suggested privatization in the restructuring plan.

“There was no indication that the task force members, including the deputy assistant secretaries of treasury, were predisposed to any conclusion, including full privatization,” he said.

Kearney correctly notes that the proposal offers “future privatization of USPS as an option rather than a foregone conclusion.” Yet, the plan section labeled “The Opportunity” makes the administration’s direction clear: “A privatized Postal Service would have a substantially lower cost structure, be able to adapt to changing customer needs and make business decisions free from political interference, and have access to private capital markets to fund operational improvements without burdening taxpayers.”

Capitol Hill opposition means Kearney is right when he said “full privatization is a very remote possibility.”

The Postal Service leaves the privatization decision to legislators, but Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan has provided a clue on where she stands.

When the reorganization plan was released, Brennan said, “Ultimately, it will be for Congress to decide whether the best path to financial sustainability is to preserve the Postal Service status as a government institution focused on our mission of public service, while giving us more authority to meet our responsibilities or whether a profit-maximizing corporate model is preferable.”

Contrasting “our mission of public service” with “a profit-maximizing corporate model” hints at her preference.

A significant portion of Congress agrees.

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