Senate committee approves bipartisan Postal Service reform bill

Wednesday - 11/9/2011, 7:22pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

Download mp3

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday approved a bipartisan plan to cut the Postal Service's costs so it can return to profitability. The legislation is the latest effort to salvage the Postal Service, which expects to lose $10 billion this year. The agency attributes its financial problems to a workforce and network of facilities that are too big for its mission in an era dominated by the Web.

The bill combines Democratic and Republican proposals to pave the way for the USPS to shed jobs, close post offices and reduce mail delivery with certain restrictions.

It would return $7 billion in Federal Employee Retirement Service (FERS) payments to the Postal Service so that it could offer "compassionate early retirement incentives" to 100,000 employees, said committee ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member. (Photo: Emily Kopp)

The legislation focuses on cutting the workforce and trimming benefits because labor is 80 percent of the agency's costs, she said.

It also would impose new limits on workers' compensation that federal unions oppose. That measure led Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) to vote against the bill. He was the only lawmaker to do so.

"The bill reported by the committee makes unnecessary and unfair cuts to elderly disabled employees' benefits, including retroactive changes that will reduce benefits for many who are already injured," Akaka said in a written statement after the vote.

Yet the 9-1 vote masks contention within the committee that could resurface when the bill goes to the full Senate. Committee members debated more than 40 amendments to the bill.

Conservative lawmakers argued the bill would not give the Postal Service enough flexibility to streamline operations. The bill, as amended, would let USPS end Saturday delivery and close rural post offices only after exhausting other cost-cutting measures.

"This is a slow death," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). "We have an opportunity to fix things and give them power to do what they need to do and we're not letting them go far enough."

Coburn said he supported legislation similar to a bill approved in October by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That bill would give a new control board authority to restructure the Postal Service's operations and network. It awaits a House vote.

Committee debate also reflected the populist anger with corporate CEO salaries and bonuses that have led to protests like Occupy Wall Street.

"If our employees have to sacrifice, there is no reason on God's green earth why the administrators shouldn't sacrifice too," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). He proposed an amendment to prevent Postal executives from receiving bonuses and cap the postmaster general's salary at $174,000, which is what U.S. Senators earn. That is roughly $100,000 less than Postmaster General Pat Donahoe makes now.

The pay cap would send the wrong message to leaders responsible for turning around the Postal Service, argued Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a sponsor of the underlying bill. He pledged to work with Tester on a less severe amendment that they could offer when the bill comes before the full Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised a vote on the Senate floor as soon as possible, said Sen. Joseph Lieberman(I-Conn.), the committee's chairman.

RELATED STORIES:

Senators' USPS plan cuts staff, refunds FERS overpayments

GAO: Postal Service did not overpay CSRS account