US postal reform bill heading for vote by full Senate

The US Senate is set to vote this afternoon on measures to rescue the ailing US Postal Service, after the Lieberman-Carper-Collins bill survived an attempt to block debate. The likely shape of the Senate’s 21st Century Postal Service Act (s.1789) is anything but certain, with as many as 38 amendments offered to the core proposals to reshape the US mail processing network and cutback on under-used post offices splitting US lawmakers.

[update: 3.30pm EST] This afternoon S.1789 survived a key a vote to block debate, on the grounds of its potential impact on the federal deficit, with Senators voting 62 to 37 to ignore a motion from Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to halt proceedings. Sessions had said the bill would add $34bn to the federal deficit, but the requirement for 60 votes to dismiss his point of order was achieved.

The Senate is now considering the various amendments proposed, and will take another vote on passing the bill (as amended) at the end – a vote that also requires 60 votes in favour to pass.

Divides over many issues, like the elimination of Saturday deliveries, are not falling along Party lines, while in other matters like network cut-backs, job protections and attempts to reduce union powers, the Democrat-Republican influences are more clear among the Senators and their proposed amendments.

Local influences are also strongly apparent for Senators, particularly those living in rural areas facing a loss of post offices, or in areas where major USPS mail processing plants are being targeted for consolidation.

Amendments

Among the amendments being voted on are proposals to further review, delay or stop outright the closing of rural post offices, adding requirements on USPS to provide alternative postal retail outlets, and even to bring in state governments to decide on the survival of local post offices.

There are also lawmakers proposing limits to the downsizing of the USPS workforce and mail processing facility, and measures to protect mail service standards.

Other amendments seek tougher measures that the core bill proposals, such as requirements for eligible USPS workers to retire, powers for USPS to close unprofitable post offices, a pilot of alternative delivery arrangements, stronger requirements for postal products to cover their costs, a new Commission on Postal Reorganisation and even a proposal proposing to end the current monopoly that the Postal Service has in accessing household mailboxes.

Proposed amendments also include efforts to limit union power within USPS contract negotiations, and efforts to force top executives to reduce their salaries.

Reform

Amendments supported by the full Senate will join the S.1789 bill that seeks to help the Postal Service turn around its current multi-billion dollar annual losses, a situation caused by the dramatic fall in mail volumes since 2006, and worsened by serious pension over-funding and a punitive system of pre-funding future healthcare liabilities.

It would appear that all US stakeholders support change at the US Postal Service in some way to cope with an increasingly digital age. Unions, professional associations and industry groups have been pushing their members to contact their local Senators to support their favoured amendments.

However, Senators as with mail industry stakeholders all have a different idea of the best approach for change – whether it be restructuring pension and benefit systems, reducing the size of the processing and retail networks, cutting back the workforce, raising postal rates, altering First Class Mail standards – or innovating to find new ways to bring in revenue into the Postal Service.

With some Senators still threatening to block the entire bill if it does not satisfy their key demands, passage of the bill is not guaranteed. Even if it does pass, it would then require a challenging vote in the House of Representatives, which has a different political make up to the Senate with a Republican majority. The House has its own postal reform bill to counter S.1789, a bill which has also passed through committee and is awaiting a floor hearing.

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