Postal reform legislation goes forward in House
April 12, 2017
By Tonda F. Rush
NNA General Counsel and Public Policy Director
WASHINGTON—A faint minority of voice votes opposed to the U.S. Postal Service Reform Act of 2017 failed to stall the bill March 16, as members of the National Newspaper Association monitored the actions of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from within the hearing room.
In a rare coincidence of timing, the committee took up HR 756, the reform bill, as NNA members were visiting Capitol Hill. Several members of Congress took breaks from the committee review to hear the views of NNA members who considered passage of this bill as a critical step to preserving timely service.
The bill now moves to the House floor with a consideration date expected in April.
The legislation is a bipartisan effort led by Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, and Elijah Cummings, D-MD. It provides the Postal Service with about $26 billion in financial relief over the next decade by shifting some 77,000 retired postal workers to Medicare for their primary medical benefit. Medicare payroll deductions have been made for these workers, but they are part of a group that opted for a separate federal health benefit instead. That federal benefit, the Retirees Health Benefit Fund, has been the subject of considerable controversy in the postal world since 2006, when Congress began to require annual $5 billion payments by USPS into the fund. If the legislation passes, the federal benefit fund would become the supplemental plan for retirees, while Medicare would pay for most costs and retirees would pay premiums for Part B of Medicare, as most private sector retirees do.
Also included in the bill is a 2.15 percent postage increase, which would be implemented at the postmaster general’s discretion, but not likely before January 2018.
What is not yet in the bill are several sections that address timely delivery. One is the NNA-sponsored provision that would require a break out of postal statistics for on-time delivery in rural areas. NNA Government Relations Co-Chair Andrew Johnson, publisher of the Dodge County Pionier in Mayville, WI, said more work will be done before the bill reaches the House floor.
“We need this bill, and we need it urgently,” Johnson said. “Relieving this health insurance pressure on USPS is the single most important thing we can do to keep the red ink from forcing more service cuts this year. At the same time, if we are going to be expected to absorb a postage increase, we must have assurances that the USPS management’s attention to service improvement will continue. I met with the staff of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, to urge his support, and I believe the leadership is ready to move now. After our meetings this week, I am assured that before this bill reaches the president’s desk, some requirements to address service will be in the bill.”
The principal objection to the bill came from former committee chair Darrell Issa, R-CA, who had proposed a bill in the 113th Congress to put USPS into the hands of a bankruptcy master, and allow the sale of assets. Issa argued that the current bill fell short in cost cutting and that Congress should mandate the end of all mail delivery to the doors of individual homes and businesses. Issa wants a sweeping conversion to cluster boxes that would require mail recipients to take extra steps to get their mail. Many mailing industry groups, including the direct mail industry, are concerned that additional burdens would prompt many homeowners to ignore the mail.
Several members of Issa’s own party, including his former subcommittee chair, Dennis Ross, R-FL, pushed back on Issa’s proposal. Ross said the bill at hand gave USPS sufficient momentum to make management decisions and that passage was urgently needed. He commended the committee leadership for crafting a bill that has received not only bipartisan support on Capitol Hill but also within the mailing world: the postmaster general, key labor unions and most mailer organizations, including NNA.
NNA Postal Committee Chair Max Heath said he breathed a sigh of relief when the bill cleared the committee.
“It seems to take Congress about a decade to figure out postal bills,” Heath said. “We spent 10 years getting the 2006 act that set a cap on postage rates finally passed, and then in 2007, we realized we needed to get started on a new one as the effects of digital conversion attacked the mail stream. Last year, we came close, but the clock ran out. This is going to be our year, I believe, and not a moment too soon. Failure in this case will be an open invitation to the Postal Regulatory Commission to pass along pretty serious rate hikes, because we will then be the last resort to keep the carriers on their routes. That would be unfair. The retiree health issue is a problem Congress created. It is a problem that Congress needs, at long last, to fix.”