Economy

If Congress Doesn’t Act In The Next Month, It Could Be The End Of The Postal Service As We Know It

CREDIT: AP Photo/Toby Talbot

If Congress does not pass legislation that would save the Postal Service from financial collapse before the end of its current session, the future of the country’s mail service will be in the hands of a senator who opposes government unions and thinks the Postal Service should be privatized.

In January, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is slated to take over as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the federal workforce and the entire Postal Service. Johnson has said that the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process that would result in a downsized, private corporation that would lose the benefits of governmental oversight and regulation. It could also allow the revised entity to terminate or substantially modify its contracts, including its collective bargaining agreements with various postal unions.

Last year, Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced the Postal Reform Act of 2014 which would restructure the needless requirement that the agency pre-fund 75 years’ worth of employee health benefits, a demand no other businesses or institutions face. The bill would also allow for a gradual end to Saturday mail service if financially necessary, as well as the eventual termination of door-to-door service, but would not mandate either of these steps.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, who is set to retire early next year, has said the bipartisan legislation would be best for the Postal Service, but postal unions and commercial mailers oppose many features of the legislation. While the unions support some of the core principals, including changes to the pre-funded mandate, they say a switch to a five-day delivery would eliminate tens of thousands of jobs. At the same time, mass mailers say the Carper/Coburn bill would continue higher postal rates which would stifle business, causing the volume of mail to decline further.

Postal unions and commercial mailers came together to offer compromise legislation and an alternative to the Carper/Coburn bill. Their proposal would keep six-day delivery and would guarantee the rollback of the recent 4.3 percent price increase, replacing it with smaller and more gradual increases over the next few years.

“The Postal Reform Act of 2014 is a deeply flawed bill [that] would raise postage rates on businesses and slash services and jobs unnecessarily, which is why it has failed to garner broad support in the Senate,” a group of postal unions and mailers said in a letter to Senators from the Committee on Appropriations arguing their compromise legislation should be passed.

“We’ve drawn out the best parts of [Senate bill] 1486 and left out all the downsizing that will do so much more damage,” Jim Sauber, chief of staff for the National Association of Letter Carriers, told ThinkProgress. “These are common sense reforms which really shouldn’t be the subject of partisan dispute.”

If some kind of legislation were to pass in the next month, it would not be the first time that a lame duck Congress passed postal reform legislation. Congress passed a bill right before the end of the 2006 session which substantially overhauled the USPS.

“We have a sense from the [Congressional] offices we’ve talked to that they see lame duck as the time for postal reform,” Benjamin Cooper, a leader of The Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, told Direct Marketing News.

But Sauber isn’t as optimistic. While he doesn’t think Congress will be able to move anything through before December, he said its financial situation isn’t as imminent as it was during the recession when it was on “right on the knife’s edge” and “ready to tip over.”

“We’re pretty pessimistic about the ability of Congress to do this during the lame duck given the result of the election,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the Congress, which doesn’t seem to pass anything anymore, take on a big issue like this before the end of the year.”

Because Coburn is retiring after this session, Carper would have to start over and find a new Republican co-sponsor to introduce bipartisan legislation in 2015, a task that would be difficult and stands little chance of moving forward in its current state. Matters will be made even more difficult because Carper will be handing the committee chairmanship over to Johnson, who has previously taken a completely different approach to the Postal Service.

Johnson has acknowledged that there are constitutional issues with his stance on the Postal Service and has said that legislation incorporating his ideas is unlikely to pass. But among the recommendations outlined in his proposal for $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction, the senator said he thinks the direct subsidy to the Postal Service for non-profit mail discounts should be ended, costing the Postal Service more than $290 million over the next ten years. Johnson also has called for a ten percent cut to the federal workforce by 2015. Postal employees are not generally classified as members of the federal workforce, but Johnson does not specify if he thinks the postal workforce should be trimmed as well.

But ironically, Sauber said, Johnson is from a state which has a lot at stake with the success of the Postal Service. Wisconsin is one of the biggest paper manufacturing states, and the paper industry generally supports postal reform.

“On that level, you would think Senator Johnson would be a good candidate to look after the Postal Service,” Sauber said. “Unfortunately his record so far has not been too encouraging. His proposals for the postal service would do a lot more harm than good.”