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.)
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.”
The American Postal Workers Union has returned to national television with three new 30-second commercials. But unlike a softer-focus ad campaign that ran last summer, these spots have a definite target: the U.S. Postal Service’s downsizing agenda and, in particular, its plans to close or consolidate more than 220 mail processing plants.
If a Maine plant closes, “we would have to consider layoffs” because of increased mailing times, says the president of a Bangor company that produces billing statements, appointment reminders and other documents, in one ad. The other commercials suggest that the processing plant closures could slow delivery of mail-order prescription drugs and warn that the Postal Service wants to lop 100,000 jobs from its payroll overall.
“They’re going to be putting people out of work everywhere,” says Walt Gale, a retired USPS manager from Colorado. “The American people depend on the Postal Service.”
The ads, which began airing last week on NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, are set to run through May. APWU spokeswoman Sally Davidow declined to give a dollar figure for the total buy, but in an email described it as “a significant amount.”
The timing is no accident. Late last month, the Postal Service released the list of processing plants targeted for demise by next year; meanwhile, the Senate could soon take up legislation that would authorize the mail carrier to offer buyouts or early retirement incentives to up to 100,000 employees and relax requirements for funding retiree health care in advance. But while the legislation would make the Postal Service jump through a few more hoops before shutting post offices and mail plants, it wouldn’t bar such closures outright.
Union-backed proposals, however, by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and 26 Democratic senators would effectively prohibit large-scale plant closings for at least four years and also make it much harder to shutter rural post offices. The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., has not said where he stands on those proposed amendments, but postal observers see the tug-of-war as one reason that the bill–which was cleared for Senate floor action almost two months ago–has not yet been brought up for debate.
One final footnote: The bill’s co-sponsors include Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from–yes–Maine.
Federal program managers may be breathing a little easier this afternoon after the Senate killed an amendment that would have ordered the Obama administration to zap at least $10 billion from this year’s budget.
Although the provision, sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., received a simple majority of 52 votes, that total fell short of the 60-vote supermajority needed to add it to a highway spending bill. Under the amendment, the Office of Management and Budget would have had to use its administrative authority to “eliminate, consolidate and streamline” duplicative and overlapping programs singled out by the Government Accountability Office in two reports over the last year. Within five months of the legislation’s enactment, OMB would have also had to join forces with affected agencies to rescind a minimum of $10 billion from such programs.
“Why would we not want to eliminate duplication?” Coburn asked in a speech on the Senate floor before the vote. “Why wouldn’t we want to become efficient and effective in terms of how we spend our children’s money?” But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, labeled the measure a backdoor attempt to lower discretionary spending caps approved as part of last August’s deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. The amendment was also redundant because “an existing rescission authority” is already in place, Inouye said.
In an after-the-vote statement, Coburn said the outcome shows “that the problem in Washington is not gridlock or partisanship, but incompetence. Senators have agreed to borrow and spend far beyond our means yet refuse to eliminate wasteful spending, even when another agency has done the hard work of oversight for them.”
The White House had not taken an official position. In an email after the vote, OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said that President Obama is committed to ending wasteful duplication, as evidenced by GAO’s finding that the administration had made progress on many recommendations for Executive Branch action contained in its original report last year on duplicative and overlapping programs. And if Congress wants to act on duplication, Mack added, it can do so “right now” by approving legislation introduced last month to give the White House fast-track government reorganization authority. That measure, sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Ct., and Mark Warner, D-Va., is awaiting action by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. A hearing is scheduled for March 21, according to the committee’s web site.
Updated to reflect March 21 hearing date for reorganization bill
Members of Congress were quick to weigh in on the U.S. Postal Service’s downsizing plans Thursday. And for the most part, they were not happy.
“This plan makes no sense at all and should be abandoned,” argued Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, where a mail processing plant is slated to close.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is “barreling ahead to implement drastic cost-cutting measures” before regulators give their views, objected Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, which would lose two of its three plants to those measures.
The Postal Service “should focus on common sense solutions that improve its fiscal solvency” instead of putting eight Ohio facilities out of business, said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
The fallout presumably came as no surprise to Donahoe. Within the next 18 months, the Postal Service wants to close or consolidate more than 220 processing plants at a cost of 35,000 jobs, most of them with benefits and relatively decent pay. At least in the agency’s recent history, this is unprecedented. Who would be happy?
The closest thing to a thumbs-up may have come from Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Dennis Ross, R-Fla., and Justin Amash, R-Mich.
“Rightsizing is essential to solving the Postal Service’s financial crisis,” the three said in a joint statement. “If USPS leadership actually goes through with a realignment, instead of caving to political pressure again, it will be an acknowledgment that no budget gimmick is going to restore the Postal Service to solvency. Keeping your head in the sand and hoping for a taxpayer bailout is simply irresponsible.”
If the preponderance of congressional boos was predictable, the more intriguing question is what happens next. The Postal Service has agreed to hold off on any closings until mid-May. Lieberman now wants it to wait until the Postal Regulatory Commission delivers a legally required advisory opinion on proposed changes to first-class mail delivery standards linked to the downsizing. The four-member commission has not said exactly when that opinion is coming, but it won’t be before late July at the earliest.
At the same time, the Postal Service’s financial woes are mounting. Perhaps not coincidentally, the mail carrier released an updated forecast last week that predicted tens of billions of dollars in new losses during the next few years if nothing changes. The plant closings announced Thursday are part of a much larger stop-the-bleeding strategy that USPS leaders say must be accepted whole if the agency is to start making money again. But lawmakers generally have no stomach for inflicting pain on constituents, particularly in an election year. With passage of the 1971 Postal Reorganization Act, Congress decided that the Postal Service should ultimately become a self-supporting entity. More than 40 years later, that decision could be in line for its biggest test.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., has some bad news for federal employees: The pay freeze is probably going beyond 2012. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe this morning reported that with the government facing budget cuts, a further pay freeze is regretful, “but I think it’s necessary right now.”
Lieberman’s suspicions track with those of Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who last month said the supercommittee’s failure to reach agreement on deficit reduction made an extended pay freeze more likely, though not certain.
O’Keefe reports that Lieberman similarly qualified his pay freeze prediction by saying “I think it’s a strong probability. You never know until it happens.” In October, Lieberman proposed freezing pay for a third year to help cut the deficit.
Meanwhile, the House is set to vote tonight on a payroll tax extension bill that would freeze pay for a third year and increase the amount federal employees contribute to their retirement by 1.2 percentage points. Read about that bill, and its plans to create a new category of retirement for new employees, here. Obama today pledged to veto the bill, which he said “plays politics at the expense of middle-class families.”
Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, today called for extending federal employees’ pay freeze — currently scheduled to last two years — into a third year.
In a letter to the so-called super committee tasked with reducing the deficit, Lieberman and Collins said “federal employees, including members of Congress and our staffs, must sacrifice as part of an urgent need to curtail the cost of the federal government and reduce the national debt.”
As a strong supporter of our federal workforce, we say this with regret, because we are asking many dedicated, hard-working and patriotic public servants to pay a price for fiscal and economic conditions for which they are not responsible. But people across the country are struggling, most especially those who are suffering from historic levels of unemployment, and all Americans, including those of us in the public sector, must help get our country out of the hole we are in.
A third year in which pay scales are frozen would save $32 billion, they said. They did not propose halting step increases, but they did say the freeze should be extended to legislative branch employees.
They also endorsed President Obama’s plan to phase in a 1.2 percent increase to the amount federal employees contribute to their pension plans. But they said the proposal should also cover legislative and judicial branch employees, not just executive branch employees. And they said the super committee should consider repealing a 2009 change allowing Federal Employees Retirement System employees to count their unused sick leave towards their retirement, which will cost an estimated $561 million over 10 years.
Collins and Lieberman said moving to a high-5 system for calculating pensions makes sense, but it should be structured to limit the effect on feds who are already near retirement. If that isn’t done, it could result in a wave of early retirements as feds try to get out before the high-5 takes effect.
From the fed perspective, however, their approach looks positively mild in comparison with the package of recommendations offered–also today–by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Among them: Go to the five-5; extend the pay freeze through 2015 and eliminate step increases; increase employee contribution rates both for participants in the Federal Employees Retirement System and the Civil Service Retirement System; eliminate FERS for new hires and limit the FERS minimum supplement to employees subject to mandatory retirement. Oh yes, and reduce the federal work force by 10 percent by hiring only one new worker for every three who leave.
Total 10-year savings would be a minimum of $375 billion, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a letter.
Wired magazine reported today that a new bill from Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, currently in draft form, would give the government broad powers to take over responsibility for civilian networks in case of an “imminent cyber threat.”
It’s commendable that legislators are thinking about private networks while making contingency plans for a massive cyber attack. Protecting government IT systems isn’t enough — the vast majority of the country’s infrastructure in this area lies in private hands.
From the Wired report:
“These emergency measures are supposed to remain in place for no more than 30 days. But they can be extended indefinitely, a month at a time. Read the rest of this entry »