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Senate action on U.S. Postal Service measure delayed

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The great Senate debate on postal overhaul legislation ain’t happening—definitely not today and possibly not until mid-April, after lawmakers return from a two-week spring break. Instead, the Senate is poised to lock horns for a while on a bill to repeal oil and gas industry tax breaks.

That’s not what many folks were expecting. In fact, dickering on the postal measure sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Ct., was reportedly continuing as late as this morning. The plan was this: Late this afternoon, the Senate would first take a procedural vote on whether to debate the oil and gas tax repeal legislation. That motion would fail in the face of Republican opposition and lawmakers would move on to the postal bill.

But Republicans—deciding that they would love the chance to talk about energy when gas is around $4-a-gallon—voted in favor of going ahead with the oil and gas legislation. For now, that means the Lieberman postal bill likely won’t come up until Wednesday at the earliest, a spokeswoman said. And with senators set to leave for the two-week “state work period” for Easter and Passover that kicks off next Monday, it could well be the week of April 16 before they get to it.

For readers in need of a reminder on what the Lieberman bill would do, here’s a link to an official synopsis. (And don’t forget, FedLine noted last week that everything in the Senate is subject to change.)

 

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Sen. Collins’ speech on the Postal Service

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, drew plenty of attention last week for her speech on postal issues. Since news outlets couldn’t excerpt much more than a fraction of what she said, FedLine thought it might be worthwhile to post the entire address, both as prepared and as Collins actually delivered it on the Senate floor, according to materials provided by her office. The first version is on the left; the second on the right.

 

SENATOR COLLINS CALLS FOR BIPARTISAN POSTAL REFORM

 

WASHINGTON – - U.S. Senator Susan Collins today, from the Senate floor, outlined the importance of the bipartisan postal reform bill she has cosponsored with Senators Joe Lieberman (I/D-CT), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Scott Brown (R-MA).

The text of Senator Collins’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, is below:

Mr. President:

The Majority Leader has indicated that the Senate may soon turn to legislation to reform an American institution, the United States Postal Service.

Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of having a Postal Service.  Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the power to establish Post Offices.

The Postal Service is also required by law to provide, as nearly as practicable, the “entire population of the United States” with “adequate and efficient postal services at fair and reasonable rates.”  This is called the universal mandate and ensures that the Postal Service cannot leave rural states or small towns behind.

The Postal Service, which has delivered mail to generation after generation of Americans, will not be able to make payroll sometime this fall, according to the Postmaster General himself.

In the past two years alone, the Postal Service has lost $13.6 billion, and first-class mail volume has dropped 26 percent since 2006.

No one wants the mail to stop later this year.    That means that we must pass a bill.

The U.S. Postal Service is the linchpin of a mailing industry that employs more than 8.5 million people and generates almost $1 trillion in economic activity every year.   Virtually everyone — from big retailers to small businesses to online shops — relies on the Postal Service to deliver packages, advertise services and send out bills. The jobs of American in fields as diverse as direct mail, printing, catalog companies, and paper manufacturing all are linked to a healthy Postal Service.

Nearly 38,000 Mainers work in jobs related to the mailing industry, including thousands at our pulp and paper mills like the one in Bucksport, Maine, which provides paper for Time magazine.

The crisis facing the Postal Service is dire, but not hopeless. With the right tools and action from Congress, the Obama Administration, and the Postal leadership, the Postal Service can reform, right-size and modernize.

My colleagues, Senators Lieberman, Carper, Brown, and I have crafted legislation to update the Postal Service’s business model and give it the tools it needs to survive and succeed.  We have introduced a bipartisan bill that will help the Postal Service reduce operating costs, modernize its business model, and innovate to generate new revenue.

However, the Postmaster General and I fundamentally disagree on how to save the U.S. Postal Service.  He continues to make decisions that will severely degrade service and drive away customers.

It is clear we have two very different visions on how best to help the Postal Service.  While each of us wants to ensure the Postal Service is set on a sustainable path, I fear Mr. Donahoe’s approach would shrink the Postal Service to a level that will ultimately hasten its insolvency.

The current plan by the Postal Service to slow first-class mail, close facilities, and ignore Congress flies in the face of the good faith we extended during the many months we have worked on the reform bill.

We worked hand in hand over a number of months with the Postmaster General to craft a bill that would save the Postal Service money in a way that prioritized the lifeblood of the mail – mailers and the service around which business mailers have built their business models and around which individual customers have developed their mailing habits.

Despite these negotiations, the Postmaster General has pushed ahead with plans to abandon current mail service standards in favor of reduced access, slower delivery times, and higher prices, which will force many customers to pursue delivery alternatives.  If those adjustments involve shifting to non-postal options in even a minority of cases – say 10 or 20 percent, the Postal Service would face an irreversible catastrophe.  Once customers turn to other communication options and leave the mail system, they won’t be coming back, and the Postal Service will be sucked into a death spiral.

What do I mean when I say businesses will adjust their business model?  Companies large and small that rely on the mail tell me that if service continues to deteriorate, they will conduct more business online and encourage their customers to switch to online services for bill-paying and other transactions.

Other businesses, such as small newspapers or pharmacy suppliers, have told me that they would seek non-postal delivery options, such as for local delivery and transport services.  Again, let’s assume only a small fraction of businesses change their operations by shifting to these online or non-postal options – it could still spell the end for the U.S. mail system.   For every five percent drop in First Class Mail volume, the Postal Service loses $1.6 billion in revenue.

That’s why the downsizing of the labor force and excess capacity that the Postmaster General states is so critical to saving the Postal Service must be carried out in a way that preserves service and does not inflict avoidable harm on these dedicated workers.  Too many have assumed that this simply can’t be done.

But the fact is, there are many options to cut costs and expand revenue while preserving service such as:  reducing the size of processing plants without closing them, moving tiny post offices into local grocery stores, reforming an expensive and unfair workers’ compensation program, allowing the Postal Service to ship wine and beer, refunding an overpayment into the federal retirement system, developing a new health plan that would greatly decrease the need to pre-fund future retirees benefits, and using buyouts to encourage employees to retire.

The Postmaster General is instead proceeding with a disastrously flawed plan, as evidenced by the recent announcement of draconian processing plant closures.  This coupled with the still-pending closures of almost 4,000 mostly rural post offices and the Postmaster General’s push to eliminate of overnight and Saturday delivery tell me that the current Postal Service leadership is gravely underestimating the consequences of lesser service on revenue from customers who depend on the service as it is provided today.

It also suggests the Postmaster General is prepared to have rural America bear the brunt of service reductions in violation of the universal service mandate.

The Postal Regulatory Commission concluded just that in its analysis on the impact of the proposal to end Saturday delivery.

The Postal Service will not be saved by a bare-bones approach that will require massive adjustments by its customers.   Perhaps that might have made sense in a time when customers had no other options, such as would have been the case decades ago.  But today, the massive shift to online publications and commerce provides most businesses alternatives to using the mail.  And a good portion of them will explore and settle on those alternatives if the Postal Service makes it harder for them to serve their customers.

Then there are the customers who simply can’t adjust their business model and could be forced out of business, taking the jobs they support with them.

Instead, the approach taken by our postal reform bill, the 21st Century Postal Service Act, would be to reduce excess capacity in the Postal Service while preserving service for customers.  While our bill would not ban the closure of all postal facilities, it would establish service standards and allow for meaningful public comment procedures that would ensure that delivery delays and impact on customers were mitigated.  The result would be that most facilities would remain open so as to preserve overnight delivery, Saturday delivery, and easy access to bulk processing for commercial mailers.  Our bill would still reduce the workforce and processing capacity at those facilities to match the volume coming in.

For example, rather than closing a plant that has excess capacity, our plan would allow a plant to downsize its labor and volume capacity.  This could mean running one shift instead of two, or half a shift instead of a whole shift, using one sorting machine instead of two, using half the space and renting out the rest, and so forth.  That way the plant still could process mail in the region providing the same service it receives today, while saving money.

Under the Postmaster General’s plan, however, the plant would close, and its volume would be processed much further away, often hundreds of miles away.  That megaplant further away would add shifts and capacity to handle the new volume, but because of the distance, overnight delivery would no longer be possible or guaranteed, and Saturday delivery would end.

The loss in revenue due to dramatically reduced service under the Postal Service’s plan would not take place under our plan – and the negative ripple effects on customers, jobs, and the broader economy would be avoided.

With our bill set to come to the floor imminently, the Postmaster General has, nonetheless, moved forward with preparations for sweeping closures and service reductions.  That means that even if our bill were to pass, get through conference, be sent to the President’s desk, and start to be implemented over the coming months, the Postal Service’s ill-conceived actions would have already done damage to its customer base.

Customers have to plan now for what they see coming.  With all these closures announcements, customers are already making contingency plans.  In this way, the Postal Service has already triggered the hemorrhaging of customers that our bill could prevent if it were to become law.

But on top of the damage already incurred, what this reckless move demonstrates is an attitude that is dead-set on its service-degrading, customer-be-ignored approach.  That attitude seems so stubbornly entrenched that I worry that even if our bill becomes law, the current Postal Service leadership would not enact it properly in good faith.  Without an attitude of “service first,” I am concerned that all the important processes and considerations we place in the bill could just become box-checking exercises for a Postal Service that is looking to just maintain the appearance of compliance rather than embarking on a new path.

This approach by the Postal Service is all the more inexcusable given its reputation for fuzzy math.  By cutting service and raising prices, and not calculating the resulting disastrous revenue losses, we have to ask ourselves if the savings estimates under the Postal Service plan are pure fantasy.

This is nothing new – the Postal Service’s assumptions about projected losses and savings from service cuts have proven unreliable in the past.  For instance, the magnitude of the savings the Postal Service estimates from eliminating Saturday delivery has been challenged by the Postal Regulatory Commission, in part because of the Postal Service’s significant underestimation of likely lost revenue.

Furthermore, we are relying on the Postal Service’s data and projections about savings and revenue, without giving the Postal Service’s regulatory body, the Postal Regulatory Commission, the opportunity to provide its Advisory Opinion.   That opinion, likely due this summer, will provide valuable feedback from stakeholders and independent economic analysts.

I hope my concerns can be addressed. But for now, is it futile to move ahead on postal reform legislation?  If the Postmaster General chases away his customer base with price hikes and service cuts before we can enact legislation to stop him, are we just wasting time trying to pass a bill that can no longer save the Postal Service?  And if the Postal Service managers are so stubbornly attached to their flawed plan now, who’s to say they’ll faithfully execute the bill once it becomes law?

So, Mr. President, I find myself in a quandary, one created by the Postmaster General himself as he shifts from plan to plan, from negotiation to negotiation.  This makes it extraordinarily difficult for those of us who want to save the historic Postal Service so it can continue to be a vital American institution for generations to come.

SENATOR COLLINS CALLS FOR BIPARTISAN POSTAL REFORM

 

WASHINGTON – - U.S. Senator Susan Collins today outlined the importance of the bipartisan postal reform bill she has cosponsored with Senators Joe Lieberman (I/D-CT), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Scott Brown (R-MA).

The text of Senator Collins’ remarks as delivered from the Senate floor is below.

Mr. President:

The Majority Leader has indicated that the Senate may soon turn to legislation to reform an American institution, the United States Postal Service.

The Postal Service is almost as old as our nation. Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of having a Postal Service.  Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the power to establish Post Offices.

The Postal Service is also required by law to provide, as nearly as practicable, the “entire population of the United States” with “adequate and efficient postal services at fair and reasonable rates.”  This is called the universal mandate and ensures that the Postal Service cannot leave rural states or small towns behind.

Yet, the Postal Service, which has delivered mail to generation after generation of Americans, will not be able to make payroll sometime this fall, according to the Postmaster General.

In the past two years alone, the Postal Service has lost $13.6 billion, and first-class mail volume has dropped 26 percent since 2006. The trend is not encouraging.

Since no one wants the mail to stop being delivered later this year. That means that we must pass a bill – and soon.

The economic impact of the U.S. Postal Service is enormous.  It is the linchpin of a mailing industry that employs more than 8.7 million people and generates almost $1 trillion in economic activity every year.   Virtually everyone — from big retailers to small businesses to online shops — relies on the Postal Service to deliver packages, advertise services and send out bills. The jobs of Americans in fields as diverse as direct mail, printing, catalog companies, and paper manufacturing all are linked to a healthy Postal Service.

Nearly 38,000 Mainers work in jobs related to the mailing industry, including thousands at our pulp and paper mills like the one in Bucksport, Maine, which provides paper for Time magazine.

The crisis facing the Postal Service is dire, but it is not hopeless. With the right tools and action from Congress, the Obama Administration, and the Postal leadership, the Postal Service can reform, right-size and modernize.

My colleagues, Senators Lieberman, Carper, Brown, and I have crafted legislation to update the Postal Service’s business model and give it the tools it needs to survive and succeed.  We have introduced a bipartisan bill that will help the Postal Service reduce operating costs, modernize its business model, and innovate to generate new revenue.

However, the Postmaster General and I fundamentally disagree on how to save the U.S. Postal Service.  He continues to make decisions that will severely degrade service and drive away customers and that undermine the opportunity for our legislation to succeed.

It is clear we have two very different visions on how best to help the Postal Service.  While each of us wants to ensure the Postal Service is set on a sustainable path, I fear Postmaster General Donahoe’s approach would shrink the Postal Service to a level that will ultimately hasten its insolvency.

The current plan by the Postal Service to slow first-class mail, close facilities, and ignore Congress flies in the face of the good faith we extended during the many months we have worked on the reform bill.

We worked hand in hand over a number of months with the Postmaster General to craft a bill that would save the Postal Service money in a way that prioritized the lifeblood of the mail – mailers and the service around which business mailers have built their business models and around which individual customers have developed their mailing habits.

Despite these negotiations, the Postmaster General has pushed ahead with plans to abandon current mail service standards in favor of reduced access, slower delivery times, and higher prices, which will force many customers to pursue delivery alternatives.  If those adjustments involve shifting to non-postal options in even a minority of cases – say 10 or 20 percent, the Postal Service would face an irreversible catastrophe.  Once customers turn to other communication options and leave the mail system, they won’t be coming back, and the Postal Service will be sucked into a death spiral.

What do I mean when I say businesses will adjust their business model?  Companies large and small that rely on the mail tell me that if service continues to deteriorate, they will conduct more business online and encourage their customers to switch to online services for bill-paying and other transactions.

Other businesses, such as small newspapers or pharmacy suppliers, have told me that they would seek non-postal delivery options, such as for local delivery and transport services.  Again, let’s assume only a small fraction of businesses change their operations by shifting to these online or non-postal options – it could still spell the end for the U.S. mail system.   For every five percent drop in First Class Mail volume, the Postal Service loses $1.6 billion in revenue.

That’s why the downsizing of the labor force and excess capacity that the Postmaster General states is so critical to saving the Postal Service must be carried out in a way that preserves service and does not inflict avoidable harm on these dedicated workers.

The fact is, there are many options to cut costs and expand revenue while preserving service such as: reducing the size of processing plants without closing them; moving tiny post offices into local grocery stores; reforming an expensive and unfair workers’ compensation program; allowing the Postal Service to ship wine and beer; refunding an overpayment into the federal retirement system; developing a new health plan that would greatly decrease the need to pre-fund future retirees benefits; and using buyouts to encourage employees to retire.

The Postmaster General is instead proceeding with a disastrously flawed plan, as evidenced by the recent announcement of draconian processing plant closures.  This coupled with the still-pending closures of almost 4,000 mostly rural post offices and the Postmaster General’s push to eliminate of overnight and Saturday delivery tell me that the current Postal Service leadership is gravely underestimating the consequences of lesser service on revenue from customers who depend on the service as it is provided today.

It also suggests the Postmaster General is prepared to have rural America bear the brunt of service reductions in violation of the universal service mandate. The Postal Regulatory Commission concluded just that in its analysis on the impact of the proposal to end Saturday delivery.

The Postal Service will not be saved by a bare-bones approach that will require massive adjustments by its customers.   Perhaps that might have made sense in a time when customers had no other options, such as would have been the case decades ago.  But today, the massive shift to online publications and commerce provides many with alternatives to using the mail.  And a good portion of them will explore and settle on those alternatives if the Postal Service makes it harder for them to serve their customers.

Then there are the customers who simply can’t adjust their business model and could be forced out of business, taking the jobs they support with them.

Instead, the approach taken by our postal reform bill, the 21st Century Postal Service Act, would be to reduce excess capacity in the Postal Service while preserving service for customers.  While our bill would not ban the closure of all postal facilities, it would establish service standards and allow for meaningful public comment procedures that would ensure that delivery delays and impact on customers are considered.  The result would be that most facilities would remain open so as to preserve overnight delivery, Saturday delivery, and easy access to bulk processing for commercial mailers.  Our bill would still reduce the workforce and processing capacity at those facilities to match the volume coming in.

For example, rather than closing a plant that has excess capacity, our plan would allow a plant to downsize its labor and volume capacity.  This could mean running one shift instead of two, or half a shift instead of a whole shift, using one sorting machine instead of two, using half the space and renting out the rest, and so forth.  That way the plant still could process mail in the region providing the same service it receives today, while saving money.

Under the Postmaster General’s plan, however, the plant would close, and its volume would be processed much further away, often hundreds of miles away.  That megaplant further away would add shifts and capacity to handle the new volume, but because of the distance, overnight delivery would no longer be possible.

The loss in revenue due to dramatically reduced service under the Postal Service’s plan would not take place under our plan – and the negative ripple effects on customers, jobs, and the broader economy would be avoided.

With our bill set to come to the floor imminently, the Postmaster General has, nonetheless, moved forward with preparations for sweeping closures and service reductions.  That means that even if our bill were to pass, get through conference, be sent to the President’s desk, and start to be implemented over the coming months, the Postal Service’s ill-conceived actions would have already done damage to its customer base.

Customers have to plan now for what they see coming.  With all these closures announcements, customers are already making contingency plans.  In this way, the Postal Service may have already triggered the hemorrhaging of customers that our bill could prevent if it were to become law.

But on top of the damage already incurred, what this reckless move demonstrates is an attitude that is dead-set on its service-degrading, customer-be-ignored approach.  That attitude seems so stubbornly entrenched that I worry that even if our bill becomes law, the current Postal Service leadership would not enact it properly.  Without an attitude of “service first,” I am concerned that all the important processes and considerations we place in the bill could just become box-checking exercises for a Postal Service that is looking to just maintain the appearance of compliance rather than embarking on a new path.

This approach by the Postal Service is all the more inexcusable given its reputation for fuzzy math.  This is nothing new – the Postal Service’s assumptions about projected losses and savings from service cuts have proven unreliable in the past.  For instance, the magnitude of the savings the Postal Service estimates from eliminating Saturday delivery has been challenged by the Postal Regulatory Commission, in part because of the Postal Service’s significant underestimation of likely lost revenue.

Furthermore, we are relying on the Postal Service’s data and projections about savings and revenue, without giving the Postal Service’s regulatory body, the Postal Regulatory Commission, the opportunity to provide its Advisory Opinion.   That opinion, likely due this summer, will provide valuable feedback from stakeholders and independent economic analysts.

I hope my concerns can be addressed. But for now, is it futile to move ahead on postal reform legislation?  If the Postmaster General chases away his customer base with price hikes and service cuts before we can enact legislation will our bill be effective in saving the Postal Service?

So, Mr. President, I find myself in a quandary, one created by the Postmaster General himself as he shifts from plan to plan, from negotiation to negotiation.  This makes it extraordinarily difficult for those of us who want to save the historic Postal Service so it can continue to be a vital American institution for generations to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Issa introduces draft bill to reform federal information security

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Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced draft legislation Friday that would reform the 2002 Federal Information System Management Act.

The Federal Information Security Amendments Act of 2012, would provide stronger oversight of federal networks, computers and other information systems by focusing on continuous monitoring of those systems, according to a news release. “FISMA had become a compliance activity, even at times when compliance appeared to supersede security.”

The draft legislation, which is open for comment, defines automated and continuous monitoring as

monitoring, with minimal human involvement, through an uninterrupted, ongoing real time, or near real-time process used to determine if the complete set of planned, required, and deployed security controls within an information system continue to be effective over time with rapidly changing information technology and threat development.

The legislation would require the agency chief information security officer to report “periodically, but no less than annually,” to the agency head about the “ effectiveness of the agency information security program; information derived from automated and continuous monitoring and threat assessments.”

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced competing cybersecurity bills that also call for FISMA reforms.

AFGE’s Cox to receive Yitzhak Rabin award

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J. David Cox / Courtesy of AFGE

J. David Cox, the national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees, on May 9 will receive the Yitzhak Rabin Public Service Award.

The American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center is giving Cox the award — which honors labor leaders and was named for the slain Israeli prime minister, labor minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner — to honor his years spent organizing federal employees at the Veterans Affairs Department and Transportation Security Administration. Cox said he helped organize at least 75,000 VA employees in some 100 elections nationwide over the last 16 years, as well as another 45,000 TSA employees last year.

“I am humbled, to say the least,” Cox told Federal Times. “Rabin is clearly a mountain, but to be chosen to be one of the faces on that mountain is a big thing.”

In April 2013, Cox will travel to Tel Aviv, Israel, where the Rabin Center will name an executive conference room for him. Past winners of the Rabin award have visited Israel in November, around the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, but Cox said his trip is being delayed so he can help with get-out-the-vote efforts for this year’s presidential election.

Cox hopes the award will provide him a broader platform to speak about how important it is to support public workers, and all the services they provide for Americans — especially at a time when politicians seemingly have their sights set on feds.

“Right now, somebody is processing Social Security checks, somebody’s helping the vets who have numerous health care issues in service to this country, somebody’s inspecting the food we eat so we don’t fall over dead, and someone’s protecting the air we breathe,” Cox said. “They are unsung heroes. Right now, we’ve been painted as villains throughout this country. I don’t believe we’re villains in any way, shape or form.”

Past winners of the Rabin award have included Teamsters president James Hoffa and Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America.

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Postal Service and mail handlers heading into mediation

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For those keeping track of the three-ring show known as U.S. Postal Service labor negotiations, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union reports that a federally appointed mediator is now in place to help the two sides settle on a new contract. The mediation process can take 60 days; if it fails, the next step will likely be binding arbitration.

An impasse was declared in late January in the Postal Service’s contract talks with both the mail handlers union and the National Association of Letter Carriers. The NALC announced the appointment of a mediator last month. “We’re working hard,” President Fredric Rolando said in a statement today. “We’re committed to reaching an agreement through the mediation process.”

But the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association is already in arbitration. In an update posted earlier this month on its web site, the NRLCA reported that both sides had concluded their introductory cases before a three-member arbitration panel. As a matter of policy, USPS officials don’t publicly discuss labor negotiations. By the NRLCA’s telling, however, the Postal Service attempted to persuade the panel that its financial condition “requires dramatic actions to curb or reduce wages, COLA allowances, paid leave, health and other benefits that rural letter carriers and this union have worked hard to achieve.”

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Senate could take up postal bill next week

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The wind-up has taken a while, but the full Senate might–just might–pitch into a major debate on postal issues next week.

Earlier today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced a motion that would allow senators to take up the bill, known as the 21st Century Postal Service Act, as early as Monday. Although everything in the Senate (and we mean everything) is subject to change, Reid presumably wouldn’t have proceeded without some chance of having the votes to kick off debate.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., isn’t commenting. Lawmakers could also have to placate Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who announced today that she’ll seek to block consideration of the bill over concerns about how the U.S. Postal Service is handling the proposed closure of a mail processing plant in her state.

For FedLine readers who need a refresher, the measure was introduced last fall by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Tom Carper, D-Del., and Scott Brown, R-Mass.  A major draw is the provision that would permit the Postal Service to spend part of a refund on excess contributions into the Federal Employees Retirement System on incentives to encourage up to 100,000 workers to retire or quit. The bill would also give the financially strapped mail carrier a big break on the current requirement to pay about $5.5 billion per year into a retiree health care fund.

Politically speaking, perhaps, so far, so good. The Postal Service can’t make the retiree health fund payments anyway and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle like the idea of using early retirements or buyouts to encourage folks to leave on their own.

But the bill contains some other provisions likely to spur—to put it nicely—spirited discussion. Under the legislation, for example, the Postal Service could end most Saturday delivery in two years if it proves to independent reviewers that there is no other way to achieve “sustainability.” Postal unions are opposed and—along with other federal labor groups—also object to proposed changes to the federal workers’ compensation system.

Last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and 26 Democratic senators urged Lieberman and the other sponsors to agree to a four-year ban on any shift to five-day delivery. They’re also seeking to stymie two other big USPS downsizing initiatives that are supposed to save billions of dollars: A change in first-class delivery standards that’s tied to the closing or consolidation of 223 mail processing plants and a round of post office closings that would shutter a lot of rural P.O.’s

It’s not clear exactly how Lieberman and company will proceed. But in a statement today, Sanders said he hopes for an agreement “that will go a long way toward saving jobs at the Postal Service, saving post offices and maintaining strong mail-delivery standards.”

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No more than 20 vendors to get initial cloud security assessments

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As many as 20 cloud computing vendors will be certified for federal use under a new security assessment program when it launches in June.

The General Services Administration, which manages the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), has said that companies already providing cloud technology to agencies under GSA’s Infrastructure-as-a-Service contract will be among the first to have their technology vetted through the program.

Vendors on GSA’s upcoming Email-as-a-Service contract will also be given priority. After being vetted and meeting any additional standards to ensure security, companies are approved to offer their products and services for sale to agencies. Anywhere from six to 20 contractors will go through FedRAMP in the first six to eight months, said Dave McClure, associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

“It is not going to be a situation where we will be drowning in FedRAMP applications,” McClure said in an interview this month. “We want to roll this out very cautiously and carefully, [and] make sure it works.”

By fiscal 2014, FedRAMP will be a sustaining program and all products are expected to go through the process, he said.

FedRAMP security requirements, largely based on standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, will apply to information technology systems at the low and moderate security levels.

For example, vendors must be able to prove that they use two-factor authentication. Their systems operators, must have two forms of evidence, such as a password and identification card, to verify who they are before accessing systems that provide government services.

Vendors and agencies will have a year to comply with updated security standards, which NIST expects to release in July.

NIST identified gaps in previous guidance to address new challenges, such as insider threats, supply chain risk, and mobile and cloud computing technologies, said NIST fellow Ron Ross in an interview.

NIST standards address the need for cloud vendors to detail where government data is physically stored and processed and to provide a clear contingency plan in case of a terrorist attack or cyber incident.

According to the most recent data from 2009, agencies spend $300 million annually to test the security of IT systems and approve their use in the federal government.

“One of the promises and the benefits of FedRAMP is that we think it will save about 30 to 40 percent of governmentwide costs associated with assessing, authorizing, procuring and continuously monitoring these cloud solutions,” federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said in December when announcing FedRAMP. The government spends “hundreds of millions of dollars a year securing information technology systems, and much of that work is duplicative, inconsistent and time-consuming.”

FedRAMP will allow agencies to reduce the number of people it takes to assess and authorize the security of its systems by 50 percent and cut the assessment time by 75 percent, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

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OSC caseload spiking

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Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner is about to testify before a Senate subcommittee, and her prepared remarks contain some interesting stats on the growing workload at the Office of Special Counsel:

  • OSC expects its overall caseload in fiscal 2012 will be 10 percent higher than last year.
  • Waste, fraud and abuse whistleblower disclosures will likely be 32 percent higher this year than in fiscal 2011.
  • OSC expects to see a 6 percent increase in prohibited personnel practice cases this year. In fiscal 2011, OSC received 2,583 cases, which itself was a record.
  • Overall filings have jumped 30 percent over the last three years.

While OSC’s workload is increasing, Lerner said its budget remains flat, and could decline in fiscal 2013. OSC is trying to deal with those challenges by increasing its use of alternative dispute resolution to avoid costly and time-intensive litigation and recruiting Presidential Management Fellows. OSC also turned its underused library into work space for employees.

“Even with our modest budget, the OSC gets a lot of bang for the buck,” Lerner is set to testify.

Stay tuned for more information on the 2013 budgets for OSC and the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Sen. Susan Collins faults the Postal Service (and the Postmaster General)

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, took to the Senate floor today to blast the U.S. Postal Service.

That in itself was not surprising; many members of Congress are unhappy with the agency’s recently unveiled plans to close or consolidate more than 220 mail processing plants. What’s noteworthy is not so much what Collins said, but how she said it—criticizing Postmaster General Pat Donahoe in sharply personal terms, according to a transcript released by her office.

“I find myself in a quandary, one created by the Postmaster General himself as he shifts from plan to plan, from negotiation to negotiation,” Collins concluded. “This makes it extraordinarily difficult for those of us who want to save the historic Postal Service so it can continue to be a vital American institution for generations to come.”

And in delivering the speech, she toned it down somewhat from the prepared text, in which she questioned whether postal leaders (and by extension, Donahoe) are proceeding in good faith.

On postal issues, Collins is not just any lawmaker; she’s the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a co-sponsor of legislation that would give the mail carrier billions of dollars in financial relief. Lately, however, she’s been critical of the Postal Service for putting a Maine processing plant on the closure list.

A USPS spokesman had no comment. The Senate bill is already under fire from Democrats who want to use it to block large-scale mail plant closings  for at least four years. A Collins spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a question late this afternoon from FedLine on whether the senator has made a decision about joining them.

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Obama pushes for Senate transportation bill with phased retirement

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President Obama today urged the House to pass the transportation bill the Senate approved last week. That bill, S 1813, contains a provision to allow older feds to phase into retirement — that is, work part-time while earning a partial pension — at the end of their careers.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on March 8 said he planned to bring the Senate’s bill up for a vote, instead of the troubled House transportation bill. But he may change course on that. Boehner is facing resistance to the Senate bill from members of his own party, and The Hill reports that he won’t decide how to move forward until he speaks to members of his caucus. He could announce this week how he plans to handle the transportation bill, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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