Hopes of a Senate hearing for US postal reform “within weeks”
Hopes are growing that some kind of progress within the US Senate regarding critical postal reforms could come within the next few weeks. Senate Bill 1789 – the 21st Century Postal Service Act – passed out of committee last November, seeking to reform healthcare and pension funding at the US Postal Service, and assist restructuring, to restore its financial sustainability in the light of drastically reduced mail volumes.
The Bill, which sought to delay any move to abandon Saturday deliveries by at least two years, has since stalled on its way to a hearing in front of the full Senate.
In recent weeks, negotiations over the bill have been extended as the influential independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, led a group of at least 27 of his colleagues demanding protection against closing of mail plants and post offices, and prevention of changes to mail standards, including the loss of Saturday deliveries.
With bipartisan cooperation hard to come by within the US Congress at the moment, particularly considering the year’s electioneering efforts, some Senators have recently held up postal reform as one of the few issues that could see legislation pass this year. However, passage is anything but guaranteed, particularly with so many lawmakers engaged in efforts to prevent mail facilities and post offices being closed in their own constituencies.
Yesterday, Senate Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill that it was time to bring negotiations between the bill’s sponsors and the Sanders group to a close.
“I think the only way we are going to get the postal reform bill done is by bringing it to the floor,” he said, conceding that current negotiations appeared to have been going on “endlessly”.
“I’m going to bring that to the floor as quickly as I can within the next few weeks,” added Reid.
Currently losing more than a billion dollars a year, USPS is looking to make a $20bn reduction in its annual operating costs over the next few years. Half of these operational cost reductions require Congressional legislation to make possible, according to executives.
Ann Fisher, the director of public affairs and government relations at the Postal Regulatory Commission said today that Senator Reid appeared “anxious to bring the bill to the floor”, but that Congressional staff were remaining “tight-lipped” at the moment on the status of negotiations.
She said: “We still don’t know when it will come to the floor, but what I’ve been told by everyone that’s working on it is it should be within the next few weeks.”
Alternative postal reform proposals are also currently sitting in the House of Representatives awaiting a floor hearing. The Issa-Ross Bill seeks to put USPS into a form of receivership, installing a control authority to force through cost-cutting regardless of union lay-off protections.
Fisher said the status of the bill in Congress was as it has been for the past few months, although she added: “Chairman Issa has a strong desire to bring the bill to the floor, and is working to make that happen.”
Congress does have another recess period during the first two weeks of April, which would delay matters further.
Responding to a 25% loss of mail volumes since 2006, the US Postal Service is currently aiming to close at least 223 of its 461 mail plants from this summer, in a move it says will save $2.1bn a year including an expected $500m loss in revenue from reduced service standards.
USPS currently has a self-imposed moratorium on facility closures in place until May 15, but will also have to give required notice periods to workers for plant consolidations.
The closing of mail facilities is also contingent on the Postal Service adjusting its mail service standards so that end-to-end First Class Mail is no longer delivered overnight.
The Postal Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing the service standard adjustment, but its Chairman, Ruth Goldway, told a public meeting today that USPS does not have to wait for its advisory opinion in order to make the changes to the service standards.
The PRC meeting today was packed with representatives of unions and communities facing post office closures, who were seeking information on closures.
APWU local unit 482 president Carlton Cooper complained during the meeting that the Postal Service was already preparing changes to workers’ jobs without regard to any opinion from the regulators.
Goldway confirmed that USPS does not have to wait for the Commission’s opinion, which should be issued “some time by the end of the summer”, and said that as far as her officials were aware, “no mail plants will be closed before some time in August”.
The Commission chairman said of the review: “What we have found even when our opinions are advisory is that the public debate that is provided through the hearings that we have, through the documents that are filed, through the questions the Postal Service has to answer, provide an opportunity for the Postal Service itself to rethink some of its plans and to make adjustments depending on the information that surfaces during this due process.”