House committee moves forward on postal reform

Wednesday - 7/24/2013, 10:53pm EDT

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved major postal reform legislation Wednesday.

The 22-17 party-line vote moves the 2013 Postal Reform Act, introduced by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), to the full House for consideration.

Over hours of debate and amendment preceding the vote, lawmakers remained divided over how best to save the financially troubled agency.

But there was little disagreement that the Postal Service, which lost $16 billion last year and hit its borrowing limit for the first time, needs rescuing and restructuring.

"The Postal Service isn't just broke," Issa said in his opening statement. "The Postal Service is far below insolvency."

Disagreement on bill specifics

Issa released a draft version of his bill last month and updated it after garnering public comment and hearing concerns from members of the committee, including some Democrats.

His goal, he said, was to make the underlying bill "agreeable, bipartisan and sensitive to the difficult situation that the men and women of the post office face, while still getting the numbers to come close to real balance."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), in his opening statement, said the final bill presented to the committee is still too partisan and that Democrats on the committee would be hard-pressed to support it.

"Given the urgent need for postal reform, I'm disappointed today that a majority again has chosen to bring before the committee a partisan bill that I and my colleagues on this side of the aisle simply cannot support," Cummings said.

The bill itself does include some proposals initially proposed by Cummings and other Democrats.

That includes creating the role of a chief innovation officer to spearhead the development of new products and services that could help the agency increase its revenue.

Issa also weakened a provision that would have required USPS to renegotiate existing contracts containing anti-layoffs policies. Instead, the bill would only pertain to future contracts.

"It is a concession that unions should not have to look at what they've already negotiated, but look forward to the next negotiation, harmonizing health care and other items that can be part of their negotiations as they go into the next round. ... All we ask is that we be met halfway," Issa said.

Cummings said he appreciated the changes Issa has made to his draft, including proposals taken from Cummings' own version of postal reform legislation.

"Unfortunately, the bill before us today still contains a number of extreme provisions that would degrade existing postal services, unduly burden the postal service with additional debt and harm postal employees."

Cummings drew attention to a provision in Issa's bill that directs OPM to recalculate any amount it has overpaid the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) using postal-specific demographic information. This would likely cause the amount of any surplus to increase, and was largely seen as a concession on Issa's part. However, as noted by Cummings, Issa's bill would not allow the Postal Service to use the surplus payments refunded to it to pay down its debts or free up liquidity. Instead, the bill requires USPS to use the refunded payments to pay down retiree health-care costs.

Door-to-door delivery, FECA changes spark debate

Committee members extensively debated another of Issa's proposals that would phase out door-to-door delivery by 2022 in favor of curbside delivery and neighborhood cluster boxes.

But Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who introduced an amendment to strike the measures, said shifting to curbside and cluster-box delivery service would likely be unworkable in many urban areas.

Nevertheless, even absent legislation, USPS already is moving in that direction on a smaller scale — aiming to transition 20 percent of business-address deliveries from door delivery to cluster-box delivery by 2016.

Lynch's amendment was defeated in a roll call 22-17 vote.

Issa's bill would make several changes to the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA), including creating a separate program for postal employees injured on the job that would bar them from receiving FECA benefits once they reach retirement age and automatically convert them to the federal retirement system.

A postal reform bill passed by the Senate last year included similar changes to FECA that would have been applied governmentwide. However, the Senate bill never became law.

John Tierney (D-Mass.) sought to block Issa's proposed FECA changes, introducing an amendment that would strip those provisions from the bill. Tierney, along with other critics of the proposed changes, argued that federal employees injured early in their careers and then forced to move to the federal retirement system would lose out on years of TSP contributions.

Tierney also pointed to research from the Labor Department showing that setting up a postal-specific workers' comp program would likely result in much higher administrative costs.

USPS employees "deserve far better than an attempt to remove postal workers from FECA that would diminish their benefits, leave them substantially worse off than they otherwise would be and cost up to four times more to implement," Tierney said.

Tierney's amendment also failed on a 22-17 vote.

The committee also approved a swath of other bills covering the federal workforce.

In a voice vote, the committee Ok'd the Common Sense in Compensation Act, sponsored by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), which would limit the number of employees eligible for performance awards and total bonus amounts during sequestration.

The committee also approved the Taxpayers Right to Know Act, sponsored by Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), which would require federal agencies to prepare annual reports detailing the cost of federal program duplication.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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