Declaring “that in many small towns in Vermont, post offices are more than just post offices-in many cases, they are the heart and soul of the town,” Sen. Bernie Sanders joined a burgeoning effort among Democrats and progressives to save the struggling U.S. Postal Service.
Speaking at a postal rally in his home state, the left-leaning independent says he will host a meeting next week with Postal Service union leaders and other experts to help him draft legislation to keep the mail service running into the future.
Sanders’ effort in the Senate will join work already underway in the House, where Democrats already have introduced comprehensive legislation to address the Postal Service’s current financial challenges and make innovative structural changes to enable it to continue to deliver for decades.
These lawmakers all agree changes must be made at the Postal Service, but they also point to a 2006 law enacted by Republicans which requires the Postal Service to make a huge, $5.5 billion to its retiree health fund, as a cause of its impending financial collapse.
“Ever since that bill became effective, we’ve been in the red,” says Fran Owens, an eastern region representative with the American Postal Workers Union. “All that we need is for that payment to go away.”
No other government agency faces such an onerous requirement, says Sanders. In fact, only one-third of Fortune 1000 companies pre-fund their health benefits, let alone in such an aggressive and expensive way, he adds.
“Should we be making changes in the postal service? I believe we should. But at a time of 16 percent real unemployment, do we want to add more than 100,000 to the unemployment rolls? Absolutely not!” Sanders told the rally.
As a first step, Sanders says, legal barriers to Postal Service modernization should be lifted to let it compete with commercial rivals and set up new lines of business.
“There is no need to eliminate six-day delivery, there is no need to close down post offices in Vermont and across the country, and there is certainly no need to lay off more than 100,000 workers,” Sanders says. “We can solve this problem in a better way. We can solve it by allowing the Post Office to recover the overpayments it has made in its pension and retiree health benefits fund and by allowing the Post Office to adapt to the modern world. If we do those things, the post office will survive, and it will continue to be an institution as strong as it has always been.”
Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) recently introduced “The Innovate to Deliver Act.” It, too, would encourage new lines of business, but it also would reform that big benefits pre-payment structure to avoid an impending default.
“We, as Democrats, realize that changes are necessary and we have embraced that in this legislation,” Lynch says. “However, we also insist that there are responsible ways to reform the Postal Service while protecting the interests of postal customers, employees and retirees. This legislation is part of the comprehensive reform that the Postal Service needs in order to improve its long-term financial viability without sacrificing customer service or placing undue burden on our dedicated postal employees.”
Republicans, however, are pushing a different approach. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, reportedly is co-sponsoring a separate bill that would create a financial control board to overhaul USPS finances —- and force potential layoffs.
Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.