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Missouri senators try to add their stamp as Senate addresses postal woes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2012 - WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate plans to attack the Postal Service’s many problems Tuesday with rapid-fire votes on 39 amendments to a bill to allow the post office to cut costs and reduce services.

The bottom line: Without action by Congress to allow it to cut back, the Postal Service would face financial collapse. The government won’t allow that to happen, of course, but Congress faces a deadline of mid-May before the Postal Service starts closing 223 mail processing plants, including facilities in Missouri and Illinois. About 3,700 post offices, many in rural areas, are also on a tentative closure list.

The slew of amendments — including separate proposals by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., related to post-office closings — will be offered to a major Senate postal overhaul bill that provides for postal employee buyouts and other cost-saving steps but would delay the Postal Service plan to eliminate Saturday mail delivery.

“I hope that there is a bill at the end of the amending process that I can support — that addresses the real problems the Postal Service faces rather than just managing the further decline of the country’s postal system,” said Blunt.

Given the tendency of lawmakers to protect their home states and respond to voter outcries, that may be a tall order. A report last week by the Government Accountability Office on the Postal Service’s financial straits found that “approximately 80 percent of its retail facilities do not generate sufficient revenue to cover their costs.” At the same time, partly because of congressional concerns, “the number of USPS-operated retail facilities, about 32,000, has remained largely unchanged” over the last five years.

With the Postal Service projecting a net loss of $14 billion for this fiscal year, most lawmakers agree that Congress needs to take some action. The underlying Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Me., would set up a gradual process for the Postal Service to close post offices and reduce service, with more input from communities.

A harsher GOP alternative, similar to a House bill, will be offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to establish a board — buffered somewhat from congressional interference — to oversee the Postal Service and carry out tough measures to cut costs. With about 570,000 workers, the Postal Service is the nation’s second-biggest civilian employer (after Walmart). The rise of email and the decline in mail volume have led to steep losses.

According to the GAO report, transactions have dropped by 18 percent over the past five years, while mail volume has declined by more than a fifth. In fiscal year 2011, the Postal Service had a $5.1 billion loss and did not make its $5.5 billion retiree health benefits payment to the federal government.

“It is very clear that Congress and the Postal Service cannot make decisions” on tough cutbacks, McCain argued last week. He said the Lieberman-Collins bill’s call for a two-year study of cost controls before ending Saturday delivery would “delay what is absolutely necessary — and that is to have five-day-a-week delivery.”

Missouri senators offer different options

One of the hardest-fought issues in Congress is the Postal Service proposals to close rural post offices, including 167 postal retail facilities in Missouri.

To head off that plan, McCaskill and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., have filed an amendment to block the Postal Service from closing rural post offices in the next two years. After that, rural post offices would be allowed to close only if the postal system shows that:

  • Seniors and people with disabilities would receive the same or substantially similar service, including access to mailed prescription medication.
  • Jobs and businesses in the community would not suffer economic loss, and the economic loss from the closure would not exceed the postal system’s savings.
  • The area served by the post office has access to wired broadband internet service.
  • The next nearest post office is no more than 10 miles driving distance.

As of Friday, the McCaskill-Merkley amendment had been cosponsored by 17 Senate Democrats and an Independent. “Our post offices are more than just brick and mortar; they’re the lifeblood for towns across our state and a source of good jobs in areas hard-hit by the economic downturn,” said McCaskill.
Critics say the amendment would tie the Postal Service’s hands at a time when it must reduce costs. “We’ve got 32,000 post offices in America,” said Lieberman. “That’s more retail outlets than Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonalds combined.”

He said the underlying legislation already allows appeals on post-office closings and “forces the Postal Service to consider other options” — such as consolidating post offices within a reasonable distance, reducing the number of operating hours or allowing contractors to provide retail postal services in small communities.

“We’ve got to find a balance here between the financial pressures on the post office — which if not responded to will take it down — and the continuing dependence that millions of American people … have on the post office.”

But, in a Senate speech, McCaskill said closing small-town post offices isn’t going to solve the Postal Service’s financial problems. “When you look at the numbers, closing rural post offices doesn’t help,” she said. “It’s … less than 1 percent of the postal budget. So in 167 different communities in my state, something that is essential far beyond the bricks and mortar for those communities would close — all in the name of 1 percent?”

For his part, Blunt told reporters that he shares the concerns about closing rural post offices but is not sure a two-year moratorium is the right approach. “I don’t want to just kick the can two years down the road,” said Blunt.

“That would be my biggest hesitancy about saying you can’t close anything for two years. I’d rather see them make a decision” to reduce opening hours or take other cost-cutting steps “rather than closing that post office totally, or not doing anything different for a couple of years.”

Blunt and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., filed a bipartisan amendment to give communities facing postal closures a “citizens' advocate” to represent their interests.

“Through balancing the needs of local communities with the Postal Service’s serious financial challenges,” Blunt said, “we can work to protect the mail delivery service without harming the rural communities and small towns that make up America.”

Backing the underlying Lieberman bill, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, “We need to get the Postal Service reform right.” In a Senate speech, he called for a flexible, bipartisan solution to “cut costs that are reasonable and enhance revenues” for the postal system.

“I know that every small rural post office cannot survive; many of them have failed in the past,” Durbin said. “But we have to understand what a critical element the rural post office is to the culture of these communities, to the identity of these communities — in some cases, to their very existence.”

With a few exceptions, most senators seemed to agree that it is essential for Congress to take action soon. And the Senate may be able to approve the Lieberman-Collins bill — most likely, with some amendments — this week.

“If we don’t do anything it’s only going to get worse, and a lot of people are going to lose their jobs and a lot of people who depend on the mail are not going to be able to get it in the same way,” Lieberman said.