By Bernie Becker – July 9, 2015
A group of Senate Democrats is pushing new legislation to improve mail service for their rural residents they say have gotten the worst of cuts from the U.S. Postal Service.
The bill from Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Gary Peters (Mich.) would speed up the mail delivery times that USPS has rolled back in recent years, make the current six-day delivery standards permanent and stop the Postal Service from closing any more mail processing centers for two years.
Lawmakers who represent rural populations have been among the most strident critics of the Postal Service and former Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in recent years, saying their constituents remain incredibly reliant on the mail.
USPS, which has lost tens of billions of dollars in recent years, has said its cost-cutting moves – which include reducing hours at rural post offices, and shuttering dozens of processing centers – were needed to stay afloat.
But in an interview with The Hill, Heitkamp said she wasn’t buying that line. Following those changes, long-distance mail now arrives within three to five days less than two-thirds of the time. “It always seems like rural America takes the brunt of these decisions,” Heitkamp said.
The North Dakota Democrat added that she was skeptical that the Postal Service’s service reductions had been all that effective to the agency’s bottom line. “Those are big numbers, but we haven’t seen them bear fruit.”
Heitkamp said she hoped that her bill could eventually be absorbed into a broader overhaul of postal operations – legislation that has long been the goal of Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and others on Capitol Hill.
She also made it clear that the Postal Service is a lifeline for many of her constituents – including her mother-in-law, who gets her newspaper through the mail. Other residents rely on the Postal Service to get medicines and other essential supplies, and Heitkamp says she’s received more than 200 stories in all about mail problems through an initiative she first set up last year.
Heitkamp said she’s hopeful that Megan Brennan, the new postmaster general, will be more sympathetic to rural issues than Donahoe. “Megan needs to understand that this is a major issue for those of us who represent rural America,” she said.
But Heitkamp also acknowledged the challenges her legislation faces. Carper, for instance, has been more willing to defer to the Postal Service on service reductions, and House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has yet to make postal reform a priority. Momentum for postal reform has also stalled in recent years as the agency’s finances have become more stable.
Plus, lawmakers seeking to overhaul USPS face plenty of questions beyond rural delivery and the proposals in the new bill, including what to do about a required prepayment for future retirees healthcare and stamp prices.
Still, Heitkamp said “our feeling was you have to lay down some markers” about what should be a priority in any broad postal legislation.