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US House committee passes “place marker” postal reform bill

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

The US House Oversight Committee passed a postal reform bill yesterday, which includes powers to allow the US Postal Service to scrap Saturday mail delivery.

The vote on H.R. 2748, the Postal Reform Act of 2013, marked the official start of the process of Congress attempting to enact legislation to pull the US Postal Service out of its current financial crisis.

The House committee’s controlling Republicans passed their version of the bill, which emphasizes cost-cutting measures, proposing a new temporary governance board to force the downsizing of USPS in response to the substantial decline in its mail volumes.

Along with an immediate end to Saturday mail delivery, potentially saving $2bn a year, the bill also calls for the end of door-to-door delivery in the 30m American homes where it is currently offered, offering billions more in operational savings.

Democrat proposals, which urged the maintaining of current mail service standards and the protection of “tens of thousands” of postal jobs, were defeated in yesterday’s committee meeting.

The bill passed the committee by 22 votes to 17, with the minority Democrats voting against it.

“Place marker”

However, the committee’s chairman, Darrell Issa, said during the business meeting in Washington DC that the bill offered merely a “place marker” in the legislative process, with the real negotiation set to come in conference, when the House of Representatives sits down with the US Senate to hammer out a compromise bill that both chambers of Congress will approve.

The Republican from California said he’d purposefully avoided certain contentious points in his bill in order to build a consensus, particularly since the Democrats control the US Senate. Most notably, Issa removed provisions that would have allowed USPS to re-negotiate existing union contracts to remove lay-off protection clauses.

Democrats in the committee nevertheless strongly opposed a number of key proposals in Issa’s bill, particularly the proposal to allow USPS to borrow $5bn more from the Treasury to pay workers to leave, the elimination of Saturday mail delivery and the end of door-to-door delivery.

Issa suggested that while some of his Republican proposals were not favoured by Democrats in the minority, if the House could just pass a postal reform bill in some form, a real compromise would come in negotiation with the Senate, which unlike the House is currently controlled by the Democrats.

Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa said he had toned down his bill in order to improve its chances of passing

“We’re trying to create the language here that lets us have an effective conference,” he said. “We just want to deal with this now so we can get a government-wide solution.”

Senator Tom Carper, the chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, last night promised he would introduced a bipartisan postal reform proposal bill in the Senate “as soon as possible”.

Democrat Senator Carper noted that his bill would differ from the House version.

Commenting on the House bill, he said: “Chairman Issa took an important step down this road by hosting a markup on House legislation that reforms the Postal Service. While we differ in our approach in some areas, Chairman Issa and I, and the rest of our colleagues, are united in our strong commitment to restore the Postal Service to solvency and give it the tools it needs to thrive in the years to come.”

Doorstep versus cluster box

One of the contentious areas within yesterday’s House committee meeting was whether it will be feasible or appropriate to replace door-to-door delivery with community cluster boxes, to help USPS cut its delivery operating costs by as much as $4bn a year.

The Republican plan would allow householders wanting to keep doorstep delivery to pay a fee to keep it.

Congressman Blake Farenthold, the Republican from Texas who chairs the committee’s postal subcommittee, said the bill should have exceptions to allow those residents who need doorstep delivery to keep it in place, such as the elderly or disabled.

“We’ll come up with a solution. We’re trying to push this where we can, but we’re not trying to inconvenience anyone,” he said.

Democrats warned that in many urban areas of America, the Postal Service would find it hard to find locations to install cluster boxes, making it difficult to achieve the provision of the bill requiring 30m addresses to lose doorstop delivery.

Congressman Gerry Connolly said: “You would be hard pressed to find any part of the city (of Boston) where cluster boxes could be built.”

Issa said that the Postal Service had lists of communities that could have cluster boxes, with installations “paying for themselves within three years”.

Source: James Cartledge. Post&Parcel

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