Carper: USPS can take page from auto industry in fixing finances

Wednesday - 2/22/2012, 9:15pm EST

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)

Download mp3

As the Postal Service debuts new plans for cost-cutting, one of the key lawmakers involved in setting USPS on more sound financial footing said the agency should take a page from the auto industry.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, told In Depth with Francis Rose the comparison may seem "unlikely." But the plan that turned around the bailed-out auto industry could prevent having to bail out the Postal Service in the first place.

About three years ago, the auto industry was "going under," Carper said with some calling to let many of the car manufacturers go bankrupt.

Instead, GM, Chrysler and Ford took a three-pronged approach: Retirement-age employees were incentivized to retire, some plants were closed and the carmakers unions' the United Auto Workers, took over managing employees' health-insurance plans.

"And I think therein lies part of what we need to do with the Postal Service," Carper said. As with the car companies, USPS needs to "right-size the enterprise," he added. For example, provide incentives for those employees who are retirement-eligible and close some mail-processing centers, without impairing service.

Carper said he's also urged the four major Postal unions, including the National Association of Letter Carriers, to take over managing Postal employees' health insurance.

"From what I can tell, it's worked out pretty well for the UAW and for their members ... And as we look to provide better healthcare for less money, that might be an option that could help the Postal Service too," he said.

Having a 'real conversation'

Carper said he would like to see the Postal Service begin having a "real conversation" about reviewing several thousand post offices in individual communities.

"The Postal Service I think is interested in engaging a number of those communities in a conversation that doesn't say 'We're going to close your post office,' but says, 'We'd like to continue to provide postal service in your community. But we'd like to consider some changes.'"

In some communities with a single post office — and even a single postmaster — co-locating postal facilities in existing buildings, such as grocery stores and relying more on part-time work could be one tactic, Carper said.

But because closing a post office in any given community is likely to draw the ire of lawmakers, what are the chances for success?

"The idea is to make sure the Postal Service has a real conversation with the community," Carper said, not necessarily that Congress will actually play a decisive role in that conversation.

Competing proposals, little agreement

Carper's comments followed the Postal Service's latest plan to regain solvency, which it unveiled last week. USPS proposed cutting its workforce by 155,000 and carving out its own health benefit program for employees and retirees. The agency lost $5.1 billion in fiscal 2011 and is expected to lose a record $14.1 billion by the end of this fiscal year.

However, many of the Postal Service's cost-cutting plans require congressional approval. A number of lawmakers and many committees have taken up bills aiming to provide a fix for the agency's finances. USPS officials, for their part, have said "not one" of the proposals "incorporates all the changes we have in our business plan in order to return to financial stability."

The plan for post-office downsizing, championed by Carper, has also drawn the ire of many of his Senate colleagues.

Nearly 30 senators penned a letter Wednesday to the committee Carper chairs, calling for changes to a Senate Postal reform bill that includes post-office closures.

The letter, signed by Maryland Democratic Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, said post offices which are often the "heart and soul" of rural communities should be prevented from closing.

RELATED STORIES:

Postal Service plan proposes own health plan, workforce cuts

Post office: $18B loss without cuts, rate increase

Postal Service's plan to close post offices hits roadbumps