December 6, 2023

Many Seek to Revamp Post Office

WASHINGTON — Until the deficit negotiations took center stage this summer, several members of Congress had another issue they wanted to focus on: an overhaul of the Postal Service, which is on the brink of insolvency.

“If it wasn’t for the federal debt ceiling and the budget issues, this would be a major, major issue,” said Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat who has proposed a bill that would overhaul the Postal Service’s pension obligations.

The Postal Service has been imploring Congress to act for years. If the status quo continues, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said Wednesday, mail delivery could be cut back to three days a week within 20 years.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the Postal Service needs revamping. Five overhaul bills have been introduced — two by Republicans and three by Democrats — with proposals addressing issues like  the actuarial assumptions for employees’ retirement benefits and the viability of Saturday deliveries.

“The situation at the Postal Service is dire,” said Senator Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat who has introduced one of the bills. “The option of doing nothing is not an option.”

The most likely path to passing major legislation appears to be through the Senate, where Mr. Carper, who is chairman of the committee responsible for the Post Office, and Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has introduced a different bill, are working together to draft a compromise that could pass with bipartisan support.

The Senate bill would probably grant the Postal Service much of what it wants, including the ability to tap into surpluses in its retiree benefits funds, which would maintain solvency in the short term. It could also allow the Postal Service to ship wine and beer, close more unprofitable post offices and eliminate Saturday deliveries.

“Those of us in the postal community believe that if Senator Carper’s bill can pass the Senate with some bipartisan support, there may be a chance that some legislation can be considered and voted upon in the House,” said Ruth Y. Goldway, chairwoman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, an oversight body established by Congress.

The wild card is a plan put forth by Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House oversight committee. He proposes letting the Postal Service default on its obligations and then establishing a regulatory body with a broad mandate to restructure the organization. The bill would also allow the elimination of Saturday deliveries, the use of postal vehicles and properties for commercial advertisements and the establishment of a commission that would operate much like the military base-closing panel in recommending closures of unprofitable post offices.

Mr. Issa, Republican of California, adamantly opposes letting the Postal Service touch the retirement fund surpluses. All of the other bills involve such a step, which Mr. Issa has described as a “multibillion-dollar bailout funded by the taxpayers.”

Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who has proposed an overhaul bill, contested Mr. Issa’s characterization, calling the use of the word “bailout” politically charged and “disingenuous.”

“This is their money,” he said of the Postal Service.

The regulatory commission and the Office of Personnel Management, which manages the retirement funds, agree with the Postal Service’s position that it has been overpaying. Estimates of the surpluses range from $50 billion to more than $80 billion.

The popularity of Mr. Issa’s bill among House Republicans, many of whom campaigned against policies labeled as bailouts, may be the deciding factor in whether a major overhaul is approved this year. Representative Dennis Ross, the Florida Republican who heads the House oversight subcommittee that works on postal issues, is so far the only co-sponsor on Mr. Issa’s bill. He said he did not support withdrawals from the retirement funds but stopped short of calling the other proposals bailouts.

So far, 14 House Republicans and 161 Democrats are listed as co-sponsors of Mr. Lynch’s bill.

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