By Nicole Gaudiano
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Sen. Tom Carper has set an ambitious timetable for legislation to help save the financially struggling U.S. Postal Service.
The Delaware Democrat, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the postal service, said he wants to finish comprehensive reform legislation by the summer, before the service tries to cut costs on its own in August by eliminating Saturday mail.
"If it takes us that long, we have failed miserably," Carper said. "I'm going to put all of my energy, at least a big part of my energy, in the next several months on getting us to a compromise."
Last year, Carper co-authored overhaul legislation that passed the Senate 62-37, but the House did not act on its own version.
Reaching a compromise that can pass both chambers could be the first test of Carper's leadership as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Already, lawmakers are choosing sides in the battle over Saturday mail service. The postal service says its plan to eliminate it would save $2 billion a year.
"We believe a piecemeal strategy that focuses on cutting services and forgoes a critical competitive advantage is not the solution," 24 senators wrote in a Feb. 15 letter to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.
Postal reform is difficult because it pits urban lawmakers against rural lawmakers, who worry about residents in remote areas getting cut off from needed services, said Rick Geddes, a Cornell University professor who has studied postal policy.
But Carper might meet his legislative goal if rural lawmakers receive assurances that a minimum standard of universal delivery will continue, he said.
"If he offers a restructuring that can both allow the postal service to become more innovative and more entrepreneurial while at the same time ensuring the delivery of mail to rural areas, I believe he will be in a solid position to get postal reform through," Geddes said.
The postal service has long sought help from Congress to reform its business model. The service is losing $25 million a day, largely because of a decline in first-class mail, and it must close a $20 billion budget gap by 2016.
Since 2006, the service has cut employees, consolidated mail processing facilities and cut delivery routes. But officials say a legislative overhaul is necessary to return to long-term financial stability.
The legislation the Senate passed last year would have allowed the service to offer buyouts or retirement incentives to reduce its workforce by at least 100,000. It would have restructured the way the postal service pre-funds retiree health benefits and allowed the service to sell non-postal products and ship beer and wine.
At the time, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, rejected the measure as "wholly unacceptable." Issa, whose committee also oversees the postal service, objected to the bill's cost and said it would prevent the service from taking necessary cost-cutting steps.
Carper said he and his staff negotiated at the end of the year with Issa and the House committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. He said they came "fairly close" to an agreement, but ran out of time last Congress.
Carper said he hopes to resume the negotiations this year and get a bill through the Senate by June at the latest.
Issa expressed similar optimism when he testified with Cummings last week at Carper's first hearing as chairman.
"We believe we can get there," he said.
Saturday mail will be one focus.
Last year's Senate bill would have allowed the service to eliminate Saturday mail after two years if other steps failed to keep the service afloat. Issa's competing proposal, which passed his committee but never got a House vote, would have allowed the service to eliminate Saturday mail after six months.
"That would be a negotiation in the context of the rest of the bill that we need to work out," Carper said.
If Congress doesn't act, the postal service currently plans to move to a five-day mail, six-day package delivery schedule by Aug. 5. They say current law doesn't prevent the change because no regular appropriations bill requiring six-day delivery was enacted for fiscal 2013. Instead, the government is operating on a stopgap spending bill that expires March 27.
During Carper's hearing, Donahoe urged lawmakers not to stand in his way.
"I would implore Congress not to put any more restrictions on us," he said.
Issa and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, top Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, both support the postal service's plan and say the service has the legal authority to move forward.
But the 24 senators who wrote to Donahoe - all Democrats except for independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont - dispute that authority, and nine senators are backing legislation to save Saturday mail.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Donohoe relied on "flawed legal guidance" to circumvent Congress.
"The postmaster general's actions have damaged his reputation with congressional leaders and further complicates congressional efforts to pass comprehensive postal reform legislation in the future," Reid said in a Feb. 7 statement.
Carper sympathizes with the postal service, but said he would prefer that any move to five-day mail delivery "occur in an orderly manner," similar to the one the Senate approved last year. Additionally, August would be the wrong time to end Saturday mail because October through December is a busy time for mail and offers the service a chance to make money, Carper said.
Lawyers from his committee, the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Government Accountability Office have researched whether the postal service has the legal authority to move forward. The answer is "unclear," Carper said.
But he hopes to make that moot point.
"I have no intention of letting this drag out until August 5," Carper said. "We're going to get this done."
Gannett Washington Bureau