Postal Service reform finds new life on Capitol Hill

Tuesday - 3/19/2013, 5:15am EDT

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas)

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By Sean McCalley and Jason Miller
Federal News Radio

The chance for major Postal Service reform may have some traction in Congress again.

While issues like pre-funding future retirees' health care benefits and stopping Saturday delivery continue to stir debate, House leadership sees room for compromise and cooperation.

During an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), the new chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census, said the problems plaguing the Postal Service exist outside of core party values.

"We're going to work with the minority side to make sure their views are always heard," said Farenthold. "A lot of the postal issues and a lot of the federal workforce issues are not these core differences between the Republicans and Democrats that we see on things like taxing and spending."

Farenthold said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), ranking member of the subcommittee, also is committed to the issues and willing to work on overcoming the hurdles standing in the way of major postal reform. However, progress may come a bit slower as Lynch is currently campaigning for a seat in the Senate.

Keeping options on the table

The U.S. Postal Service has plans of its own to try and reduce the record-breaking losses that continue to rack up every year. It announced plans earlier this year to end Saturday delivery of mail, which it says it can do without Congressional approval. If USPS continues with its plan, Saturday delivery would end on Aug. 5.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas)

Farenthold supports the Postal Service's desire to halt Saturday delivery.

"I don't understand why the Saturday delivery [plan] isn't a no brainer. ... The big argument against not delivering on Saturday was how do people who work Monday through Friday get their medications and packages. Postal Service came up with a brilliant solution and that is, 'Hey look, we're just not going to bring the junk mail on Saturday. We're still going to bring the packages.'"

Other lawmakers on Farenthold's main committee and in the Senate are not as supportive of stopping Saturday delivery.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) issued a statement calling the plan to move to five-day-a-week delivery "not responsible" if USPS doesn't have updated data on possible savings.

Connolly and McCaskill wrote to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and the Postal Regulatory Commission in January shortly after USPS announced its plan to move to five-day-a-week delivery for first class mail seeking more details on how the service calculated the savings.

"The Postal Service has failed to deliver in responding to congressional requests in a timely and responsive manner," said Connolly in a statement. "The Postmaster General demands that Congress quickly rubber-stamp the elimination of Saturday mail delivery — yet refuses to explain how cost-savings were calculated — apparently expecting members to evaluate his policy proposal from press materials alone."

The Postal Regulatory Commission provided answers, but said it would "need the Postal Service to provide complete and updated data" in order to give an accurate estimate of cost savings.

Farenthold said workforce reductions could offer financial relief, too. USPS is already in the midst of a five-year workforce reduction plan. Another 51,000 are expected to leave the agency by the end of fiscal 2013. USPS Chief Financial Officer Joe Corbett said about half of USPS' career employees are eligible to retire. That's about 283,000 people.

"We're going to end up having to shrink down the postal workforce as [delivery] volume drops," Farenthold said. "I think we can do that through natural attrition," especially as customers start relying more on Internet services to pay bills and correspond.

Farenthold would also like to see curbside delivery and "cluster mailboxes" considered to improve delivery efficiency. Farenthold said if all the mailboxes for a neighborhood were in a single location, it would cut down on travel time for postal workers.

Compromise, not concession

Farenthold is not a fan of every suggestion from the Postal Service. Most obvious is his desire to keep pre-funding pension plans for postal employees. USPS has a history of overpaying into the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System. It's also the only federal agency that pre-funds health benefits for future retirees, and in 2010 the USPS inspector general said the cost equations that determine how much is paid are probably inaccurate.

"I realize a lot of postal employees say 'Look, [the problem is] the requirement that Congress has put on us to pre-fund our pensions.' I tell the postal workers that ... and some of them get it, and some of them disagree with me ... if I were a federal employee, I would want my pension as fully funded as possible so I'm not relying on the whims of Congress," he said.

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.)

That said, he is willing to consider changing the way pension funding is calculated. He said the priority is to make sure the process causes as little damage to the postal budget as possible. The trick, he said, "is making sure the math is right."

The Postal Service's money problems also are coming under fire from another of Farenthold's colleagues, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), the former chairman of the subcommittee.

Ross said USPS is wasting money on a four-day conference in San Francisco.

"The Postal Service loses $25 million each day. When they are broke, why are they spending $2.2 million on a four-day conference in California?" Ross asked in a press release. "When Americans' hard-earned tax dollars are propping up the Postal Service and they will have to sacrifice and not receive mail one day a week, it's outrageous that the U.S. Postal Service is throwing this money at a short conference for their executives."

A spokeswoman for Ross said that USPS is using taxpayer funds because it accepted a line of credit from the Treasury Department to help pay its bills. The Postal Service lost $15.9 billion last year and needed the line of credit to pay its bills.

A request to USPS for a response to Ross' criticism was not immediately returned.

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