Senate frustrated over postal reform—bill stalls

May 2, 2012

The U.S. Senate labored hard in mid-April to pass a compromise postal reform bill only to be frustrated by philosophical disagreements over how to govern the nation’s U.S. Postal Service.

The 21st Century Postal Act, S. 1789, was to come to the floor on April 17 with a substitute amendment that largely reworked the bill passed by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The new version driven largely by Sens. Susan Collins, R-ME, and Thomas Carper, D-DE, added substantial new protections against closing mail processing plants while driving other cost-cutting reforms.

A provision drafted in consultation with National Newspaper Association was inserted to keep overnight delivery for Periodicals for three years, and to restrict USPS’ ability to change critical entry times in ways that denied mailers “meaningful access” to the mails. Other provisions, like a two-year moratorium to keep Saturday mail delivery until USPS tried to find better cost-cutting measures, remained in the bill.

But an attempt by Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, to turn the bill into a debate about aid to Egypt destroyed the fragile alliance to move the bill to the floor. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, retrenched on offers to allow limitless amendments and instead sent Democratic and Republican caucus leaders into prolonged negotiation over which and how many amendments were to be permitted.

Rumors of amendments from several senators to increase postage rates ran rampant while the caucuses negotiated, though each rumored sponsor appeared to change course after NNA’s Congressional Action Team and others explained how high rates would affect newsroom budgets. But no consensus could be reached on voting day.

At the end of the week, the Senate faced the possibility that no bill would be passed before the election.

A different approach by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-CA, and Dennis Ross, R-FL, is pending in the House. Issa-Ross’s HR 2309 would put USPS under the direction of a politically appointed control board, which would have authority to end Saturday mail, direct rate increases, close mailing plants and renegotiated union contracts.

In election years, legislative time for major initiatives is short. The likelihood that no comprehensive bill would pass before the election raised the specter of a hastily-constructed lame-duck session agreement to keep USPS in business a while longer.

Legislative proponents have sorted themselves roughly into three camps: those who believe USPS is like a business and must be deregulated to make its own decisions on service and costs; those who want Congress to keep present services in place with higher postage rates and the middle camp led by Carper and Collins who are driving reform with a mix of measures that keep essential services while pressuring USPS to carry out layoffs to downsize the workforce.

NNA President Reed Anfinson said NNA preferred the Collins-Carper approach.

“USPS is not a private business. It has a government-protected monopoly and can create enormous havoc in the print distribution and package businesses. Neither should it be governed in the old way where rates soared every few years. Senators Collins and Carper understand the importance of trust in the mail delivery system while essential changes are made. We know we are in for many changes as newspapers, but we are committed to helping guide the system into changes that do not spell the end of newspapers in the mail.”

Part of NNA’s work in that area is ongoing at the Postal Regulatory Commission where a set of hearings on eliminating overnight mail will be held in May and June. NNA Postal Committee chairman Max Heath and South Dakota Newspaper Association Executive Director David Bordewyk will be witnesses for the community newspaper industry.