By: Bernie Becker
Lawmakers are reevaluating how to move forward on postal reform this year, after running out of time at the end of the last Congress.
Observers on and off Capitol Hill acknowledge that not reaching a deal in last year’s lame-duck session was a setback, even as lawmakers in both parties and chambers made progress on a range of issues.
Now, with postal officials urging Congress to move quickly on legislation this year, some key senators from last year’s negotiations have either left Capitol Hill or are taking more of a backseat on the issue.
Even with the last-minute work in the lame-duck, lawmakers still have to work through differences on how or if to let the Postal Service scrap Saturday delivery and how the agency should handle healthcare for future retirees.
With all that in mind, lawmakers are not rushing to sketch out their plans on how to get a postal bill to President Obama’s desk.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has worked for years on postal issues and is now chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said last week that he wants “to have a good dialogue with the House” and his panel’s new ranking Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.).
“Make sure we’re on at least the same planet,” Carper told The Hill. “Maybe not exactly the same wavelength.”
Carper and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, also released a joint statement early this year vowing to continue to work together, without laying out a timetable for when postal legislation could get done.
“I like the idea of working with the House,” Carper, who himself served five terms in the House in the 1980s and 1990s, said this week. “Some people think: They’re on the other side of the world. We won’t talk to them.”
"I like to talk to them," Carper said.
The debate comes as the Postal Service bled almost $16 billion worth of red ink in fiscal 2012 – around $11 billion of that stemming from defaults on a pair of required payments for future retiree healthcare.
Those losses come as USPS is grappling with changes in how customers use the mail. First-class mail has been on the decline for years, but, buoyed by online shopping, the shipping of packages has become a bright spot for the Postal Service.
And USPS, while urging Congress to pass legislation, has streamlined where it could, unveiling plans last year to shorten hours at hundreds of local post offices and consolidating mail processing centers.
A GOP aide at the House Oversight panel told The Hill that those policy changes and other factors would likely be reflected in new legislation from Issa.
House GOP leaders declined to bring the bill Issa championed in the last Congress to the floor, at least in part to shield members from having to take a tough vote and even though the Oversight panel passed it in 2011. That measure was broadly opposed by Democrats, including the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
The Senate Homeland Security panel, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold a hearing with postal officials and other stakeholders in the coming weeks, and Carper has said that hearing will help decide how the panel builds on the strides made over the last two years.
The full Senate passed a bipartisan postal measure sponsored by Carper and three others last April, but that legislation expired at the end of the 112th Congress.
At the same time, that progress will have to be made with new senators taking center stage in postal negotiations – and as the chamber has to balance the concerns of members like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who worked to limit the cost-cutting measures in last year’s bill, and Coburn, who believes the measure never did give USPS the flexibility it needed on that front.
Coburn replaces Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), one of the co-sponsors with Carper on the last postal bill, as the Homeland Security panel’s ranking Republican.
Collins, in fact, is no longer on the committee at all, though she says she will still remain engaged on postal issues. The previous postal bill’s other two co-sponsors, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), are out of Congress altogether.
“We had developed a great deal of expertise,” Collins said. “To have three of the four major sponsors no longer be on the committee – and two no longer be in the Senate – does deal postal reform a setback. But I know how committed Tom Carper is to the issue.”
Carper has promised Coburn, a noted fiscal hawk, that he will not reintroduce the previous Senate bill, and the Oklahoma Republican told The Hill last week that lawmakers needed to quit tying the Postal Service’s hands on issues like delivery standards.
But Coburn did express some confidence that he and Carper, Issa and Cummings could make headway on overhauling the agency.
“Something’s going to get done,” Coburn said. “It’s going to give. They’re going belly up. So it’s time to make the hard decisions, regardless of what the members want.”
An observer of postal negotiations outside of Congress said that divide and other factors – including that lawmakers will likely be concentrating on deficits and the economy for months to come – could limit the scope of postal reform to issues like the prepayment for retiree healthcare and a few other areas.
“As large as the postal service is, it isn’t the debt ceiling,” the source said. “We’d still like to have comprehensive reform. But if you can’t get there, we’d still like to get those core things done.”
With technology likely to affect how customers use the mail for years to come, the observer also questioned how long any reform could last before Congress and the Postal Service needed to reexamine it.
“Members of Congress should be prepared to come back and visit the Postal Service quite often,” the source said. “Like it or not, we’ll be gathering fairly regularly."