April 24 (Bloomberg) -- A Senate bill to overhaul the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service would make it more difficult to shutter post offices considered too costly to maintain.
The legislation would create an appeal process to let customers protest plans to close individual offices. The Senate began voting today on proposed amendments to the bill, S. 1789, including at least eight that would delay decisions on shutting down postal sites.
Lawmakers have struggled with how to reduce the cost of programs or benefits their constituents rely on, such as Social Security and Medicare, as budgets grow tighter. When the Cold War ended during the late 1980s, Congress created a series of Base Closure and Realignment Commissions to recommend military base closings in a process that insulated lawmakers from opposition by people back home who lost their jobs.
“Individual congressmen can try to save their post office this year or next year and get some brownie points with the electorate for that, but this thing doesn’t work anymore,” said Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard University lecturer who led government modernization efforts in the 1990s, during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“This is a long-term structural trend, and it’s like buggy-whip makers and candle manufacturers -- it’s just going to be mostly obsolete,” she said about the decline in the use of first-class mail.
3,700 Post Offices
The Postal Service proposes to close as many as 3,700 post offices and more than 220 mail-processing sites across the country. The closings, which may take effect starting May 15, had been postponed by a five-month moratorium urged by a group of senators in December. The Postal Service has estimated the cuts could save $6.1 billion a year to help stave off a default.
The Senate measure would authorize the Postal Service to provide non-postal products and services, revise its payments to two federal funds that provide worker retirement benefits, and install a chief innovation officer to help adopt new business practices.
The measure’s revisions to the postal closure process would allow “stakeholders and community members” more opportunities to provide feedback on potential shutdowns, bill co-sponsor Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement. The process is “critical to ensuring that postal customers support the Postal Service’s larger reform efforts,” he said.
Limited Internet Access
Senators have said they worry that post office closings could hurt constituents, especially those in rural areas with limited access to broadband Internet, and that the harm may outweigh the cost savings.
“I know we have a problem here, but when we look at the numbers, closing rural post offices doesn’t help,” Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said April 18 during floor debate. “In 167 different communities in my state, something that is essential far beyond the bricks and mortar to those communities would close, all in the name of less than 1 percent” of the Postal Service budget, she said, citing an independent estimate.
The Senate today adopted McCaskill’s amendment to prohibit rural post office closings for at least one year, except for those carried out in the interest of public health and safety and in communities that don’t express significant opposition.
Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski placed a hold on the bill March 20 because of the Postal Service’s plan to close a mail-processing facility in Easton, a town on her home state’s Eastern Shore. The procedural tactic didn’t block the Senate from taking up the bill, and Mikulski today withdrew a proposed amendment that would have required a state governor’s signature to shut down a postal facility.
“The Post Office is not a business, it is a public utility, and we need to think of it as a public utility which provides a universal service to keep the juice and electricity of our economy going,” Mikulski said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
One proposed amendment would keep all facilities in vote-by-mail states open until after the November election. Another would retain offices in areas where the next closest postal facility is more than 50 miles away.
“This is tough stuff politically and I understand the instinct” to push back against closures, said Paul Light, a federal government expert at New York University. “But you’ve got to get at the big-cost items, and they actually roll up through the closure of a number of small units.”
Speeding the Process
Some senators are trying to speed the closure process. Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky proposed an amendment to cut the number of post offices on Capitol Hill from seven to a maximum of two.
Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed allowing the Postal Service to close rural-area post offices based solely on unprofitability. Senate leaders have agreed that no amendment can be adopted unless 60 senators support it.
The proposed closures are “intricately linked” to other revenue-raising efforts, said Kamarck, who was hired to submit a 2009 report to the Postal Service on its business model. Congress “has to face reality” by accepting the closures and developing plans to ease negative effects such as job losses, she said.
The Senate plans a vote on final passage this week. The House hasn’t considered its main Postal Service overhaul bill, H.R. 2309, which would create a commission modeled on the Defense Department’s base-closing commissions to oversee closing postal facilities.
“The Postal Service urgently requires the enactment of comprehensive legislation to return to profitability and long-term financial stability,” Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer said in an e-mail. Partenheimer declined to comment on the Senate’s proposed changes to the closure process.
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