|Bernie Becker||July 15th 2012|
The House’s delay in considering a postal reform bill is sparking concerns that the rescue of the U.S. Postal Service could be delayed until after the November elections — or even until the next Congress.
Republicans signaled last week that the House would likely not vote before the August recess on a postal bill from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the Oversight Committee chairman, and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.).
Senators and outside industry observers decried that holdup, saying that any delay reduces the chances of lawmakers coming together on a broad postal reform package. The Senate passed its own postal reform bill in April, and key senators are waiting to negotiate a compromise bill with the House. “The longer the House delays reforming the Postal Service, the more likely it is that nothing happens,” said Art Sackler of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a group that represents the private-sector mailing industry.
The postponement of work on the postal bill also comes as House GOP leaders have shown little to no interest in advancing the chamber’s farm bill, another piece of legislation that could be a tough vote for some in the Republican rank-and-file.
At the same time, with the November elections less than four months away, GOP leaders in the House have scheduled a series of messaging votes meant to highlight the differences between the parties on issues like healthcare repeal and extending current tax rates. That has left some observers concerned that, even if the House can pass its bill after it returns in September, final negotiations on a postal revamp could spill over into the lame-duck session after the election.
With work in the lame duck expected to center on the so-called “fiscal cliff,” postal reform could be tacked on to a massive, must-pass bill at the end of the year. Otherwise, the next Congress might have to start from scratch come January. Meanwhile, the Postal Service is on pace to lose billions of dollars this fiscal year, and owes $11 billion, in two separate installments, over the next two and a half months in prepayments for retiree health care.
A House GOP leadership aide said this week that Republicans were onboard with the bill from Issa and Ross, and “cognizant” of the deadlines USPS faces and its financial situation. “We remain committed to postal reform, but a decision hasn’t been made about when the House bill will be considered,” the aide said.
Ross told The Hill this week that he wanted to move forward with the postal bill during the current work period, and that he believed he and Issa had the votes to get the bill through the House. But the Republican freshman acknowledged that the final decision rested with leadership.
“I think it’s something that we can’t afford to not do,” said Ross, the chairman of a House Oversight subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service. “It’s something that can’t be postponed. Eventually it’s going to have to be addressed. I’m ready, willing and able to do it right now, and I’ve let my leadership know that.”
Democrats and Republicans on the Oversight panel are also meeting to see if they can find more common ground on a postal bill, according to the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.). “There are just certain things that the Democrats are very concerned about,” Cummings said. “And hopefully we’ll be able to resolve them.”
Democrats, as well as postal unions, have sharply criticized the House GOP bill for creating a control board charged with overseeing spending, and a BRAC-style panel to recommend a plan for consolidating post offices. A House GOP aide said that Republicans were happy to talk with Democrats, but would demand that mandatory spending restraint be part of any postal bill.
The Postal Service has said that, unless Congress acts, it will default on the separate prepayments for retiree healthcare, which are due in August and September. But even if that should happen, USPS would still be able to pay its employees and deliver the mail, the agency says.
USPS has also given a less dire financial forecast in recent months. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe warned last year that USPS could stop being able to deliver the mail this August or September without congressional assistance, but is no longer making that claim. That, according to some postal observers and congressional aides, has led some lawmakers to believe the postal reform bill can be pushed aside for the time being.
But a USPS spokesman suggested to The Hill that a default could make consumers less confident in the Postal Service and cause even more financial strain. The agency currently says it needs to cut $22.5 billion from its annual ledger by 2016, and is in the process of consolidating mail processing centers and shortening hours at many rural post offices.
Backers of the bipartisan Senate postal bill — sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — have not suggested that they are getting any sort of tactical advantage from the House inaction.
The Senate bill, which has sharp differences with the House proposal, would allow USPS to use an overpayment into a federal benefit fund, and lessen the strain of the retiree prepayment. It also would not allow USPS to move as quickly to scrap Saturday delivery.
Senators say the House is taking too much of a chance with the Postal Service’s finances by not passing a bill, and argue it’s high time for the two chambers to start negotiating. “Every day that passes without addressing reform of the Postal Service is another day that pushes it closer to the brink of insolvency,” Brown said in a statement this week.
Bernie Becker writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.