Thursday, April 26, 2012

Playing Politics With The Postal Service

Late Wednesday, April 25, by a vote of 62-37, the Senate passed SB1789, its version of Postal Service reform. The House has yet to take up HR2309, its competing Postal Service reform measure. As usual in the current Congress, these two bills from opposite sides of the capitol rotunda threaten gridlock over reforms the Postal Service itself is fully prepared to make in a last ditch effort to stave off explosive growth of the “independent” corporation’s $12 billion debt. In an election year with both political parties clamoring for deficit reduction and government fiscal responsibility, it’s another symptom of that chronic Congressional disease “we have to live within our means, unless, of course, it hurts.”

Postal service leaders themselves have written the prescription for the bitter fiscal medicine their agency will have to swallow to regain some modicum of fiscal health: save $6.5 billion per year by ending Saturday mail deliveries;  closing 220 redundant mail processing centers and 3,700 local post offices; cutting 100,000 jobs; and stretching out a 10 year payment schedule for funding $5.5 billion a year into retiree health benefits from 10 years to 40 years. Not content to let the appointed Postal Service business managers do such budget slashing in an election year, Senators have intervened in SB1789 to make it nearly impossible for Postal Service managers to meet the needs of their own agency’s financial soundness.

A decade ago, the Postal Service handled 202.8 billion pieces of mail annually – last year, the agency handled only 168 billion. The advent of E-mail and on line bill payment accounts for the largest part of that volume loss. But, while agency leaders are fully prepared to close facilities and cut employment to reflect the continuing decline in mail volume, Senators are clearly not. After considering 39 proposed amendments over two days, the measure as passed prohibits the Postal service from closing any rural post office if the nearest alternative location is more than ten miles away. The bill also requires the agency to maintain next day delivery of mail sent to nearby communities, and to continue Saturday mail deliveries for at least two more years. In the face of predictions that the Postal Service will reach its congressionally imposed debt ceiling of $15 billion within this year, the Senate’s action is unconscionable.

California Congressman Darrel Issa, lead sponsor of HR2309, calls the Senate bill “wholly unacceptable,” and he’s right. Issa’s measure would allow the Postal Service to end Saturday mail service, streamline postage rates, and require postal employees to pay the same health insurance premiums as federal government employees. Rather than permitting Postal Service managers free reign in mail handling center and post office closings, though, Issa’s legislation sets up a commission to vet postal facility closures. It seems neither Senators nor Congressmen can stand to give up their right to be free themselves from the effects of government cost reduction.

Downsizing government in their own districts to save taxpayers money is a medicine politicians can’t bring themselves to swallow under any circumstances.

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