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Senate approves postal service reform, passes amendments from McCaskill and Blunt

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2012 - On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed a reform of the U.S. Postal Service by 62 to 37. As the Washington Post reported, the bill made several sweeping changes. Among the major changes:

  • allowing Saturday mail service to end if it is shown to be financially necessary;
  • setting aside $111 billion for employee buy-outs and early retirements;
  • ending overnight delivery to more distant locations.

The bill included numerous amendments. Among the ones that passed Wednesday was one from U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that provides for a citizens' advocate to represent the public in postal closures.
“As the U.S. Postal Service continues to face serious fiscal problems, we need to consider all possible options before closing post offices and processing centers. Rural communities and small towns in Missouri and across the country rely heavily on the U.S. Postal Service every day and deserve to have their voices heard throughout the process," said Blunt.

“I applaud the passage of this bipartisan amendment to the postal reform bill that will provide communities facing postal closures with a citizens’ advocate to represent their interests," continued Blunt. "Working together to balance citizens’ needs with the Postal Service’s serious financial challenges, we can achieve an outcome that will protect the mail delivery service for the rural communities and small towns that make up America.”

On Tuesday, the Senate passed an amendment of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that made it tougher to close rural post offices.

Read the Beacon's earlier story:

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate, moving toward a final vote Wednesday on a bill that aims to keep the troubled U.S. Postal Service operating, approved a modified amendment by Sen. Claire McCaskill on Tuesday to make it tougher to close rural post offices.

After the voice vote, McCaskill, D-Mo., said the measure would give “a year of breathing time” for the 167 rural postal retail facilities in Missouri that were slated to be closed, and would require postal officials to meet several standards before closing a post office.

If Congress approves the overall bill, “there [would be] very strict criteria that would have to be used to successfully try to close a rural post office in the future,” McCaskill told reporters. But she and co-sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., agreed to a compromise that cut the moratorium on closing rural post offices to one year, from the original two years.

Under the modified amendment, the Postal Service could close a rural post office — in communities with fewer than 50,000 residents — if it convinces the town that the postal alternative is acceptable and if there is no “significant” local opposition to the closure. Otherwise, McCaskill said, 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.

The main sponsors of the main Senate postal bill, Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed to support McCaskill’s measure after the changes. Lieberman, who had been critical last week, said Tuesday that the modified amendment was “rational and fair” because it reduced the closing moratorium to one year and would allow the Postal Service to close a rural post office under certain conditions.
Without action by Congress to allow it to cut costs, the Postal Service would face financial collapse. Congress faces a mid-May deadline 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 Lieberman-Collins bill would set up a gradual process for the Postal Service to close post offices and reduce service, with more input from communities. “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.

Before voting on other amendments, the Senate rejected the strongest challenge to the bill, a GOP alternative offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Similar to a House bill, it called for establishing a board, buffered somewhat from congressional interference, to oversee the Postal Service and carry out tough measures to cut costs.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., joined many other Republicans in supporting McCain’s substitute; McCaskill and Durbin voted against it.

During Tuesday’s debate, McCain attacked the Lieberman-Collins bill as delaying the tough decisions on key postal issues, such as eliminating Saturday mail delivery. “This is not a solution,” McCain argued. “This is not even a Band-Aid.”

Lieberman and Collins refuted that charge, contending that their bipartisan compromise would save the Postal Service billions of dollars in future years.

Among the amendments approved by voice vote was one offered by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would make it more difficult for the Postal Service to close any postal processing plant that has been found to be efficient since 2006. Such processing facilities could not be closed unless the Postal Service's inspector general found that there would be significant cost savings and that previous studies were no longer valid.

Senators also defeated an amendment to enforce mandatory retirement of postal workers and turned back an effort to guarantee that six-day mail delivery would continue indefinitely.

The Senate was expected to vote Wednesday on an amendment by Blunt and Michael Bennett, D-Colo., to offer communities facing 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 earlier, “we can work to protect the mail delivery service without harming the rural communities and small towns that make up America.”