By Rachael Bade
A bipartisan group of senators plans to announce on Wednesday their agreement to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service.
The proposal will “pull the USPS from the brink of financial failure,” said a joint statement by independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Democrat Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts.
Lieberman and Collins are the leaders of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Carper and Brown are the chairman and ranking member of the panel’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee.
Aside from confirming that they would introduce a bill, the lawmakers and committee staff were tight-lipped Tuesday about what the agreement might include and when the panel would mark up the proposal. The group agreed not to discuss details until an 11:30 a.m. press conference.
“We worked long and hard,” Carper said of negotiations.
Lieberman noted the urgency of helping the Postal Service, but he would not go into details.
“If we don’t fix the problem, sometime next year they’re not going to be able to continue to deliver the mail,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.”
Brink of Bankruptcy
Postal Service leaders have been urging Congress since summer to take action to keep the agency from having to declare bankruptcy. The Postal Service lost an estimated $10 billion in fiscal 2011, in part because of a decrease in first-class mail volume. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe has projected that without major changes, the agency could run out of money as early as next August. After months of debate, lawmakers have introduced about a half-dozen overhaul proposals.
Collins and Carper, perhaps the two senators most involved in the issue, had introduced competing Postal Service overhaul bills (S 353 and S 1010). But both have expressed a willingness to work to merge their bills and stand united behind a single proposal that includes elements of both measures.
Carper’s bill would allow the Postal Service to eliminate Saturday mail delivery; Collins has expressed skepticism about whether such a change would alleviate USPS financial troubles.
Collins’ bill would require postal employees receiving workers’ compensation benefits to switch to regular retirement benefits — which traditionally provide less money — once they have reached retirement age. Carper’s bill has no such provision.
Both lawmakers’ bills, however, backed the idea of allowing the Postal Service to set up “Village Post Offices,” which would offer postal services inside private retailers rather than continue to operate underused post offices.
Carper and Collins both also have expressed support for allowing the mail carrier to take back any overpayments it may have made to employee retirement accounts and use that money to pay for a mandate (PL 109-435) that requires it to make payments in advance on all its employees’ retirement health care benefits.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the bulk of the “overpayments” did not exist, and warned that a refund would have to be covered by taxpayer dollars and could create pressure to reduce pension benefits for federal employees in the future.
The day the report was released, Carper suggested that lawmakers focus on areas of consensus, such as a provision to refund to the Postal Service a relatively small $6.9 billion overpayment — which GAO confirmed — in one retirement account.
Throwing a potential wild card into the mix, Lieberman said Tuesday that the compromise bill may not be a simple mixture of the Collins and Carper proposals. “I think there will be some new things,” he said.
More Compromise to Come
The House is expected in the weeks ahead to take up Postal Service overhaul legislation (HR 2309) proposed by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and panel member Dennis A. Ross, R-Fla. It looks quite different from Collins’ and Carper’s legislation.
The Issa-Ross bill, which has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats, calls for billions of dollars in savings through closures, service cuts and workforce downsizing. It would prohibit no-layoff clauses in collective bargaining agreements, and create an oversight authority that would seize power over the agency if it maintains more than a $2 billion budget deficit for more than two years.
Republican John McCain of Arizona introduced a Senate companion to the Issa-Ross bill (S 1625), but was not included in the negotiations involving Lieberman and the other senators. McCain said Tuesday that he was still discussing his bill with other members, however, and that his proposal may come up sometime in the future.
“There’s always the amendment process,” he said.