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Number of empty chairs on Postal Service board increasing

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As the U.S. Postal Service’s problems grow, its governing board is shrinking.

The board, which is supposed to have 11 members, currently has eight and will lose another next week when Chairman Thurgood Marshall Jr. steps down, leaving it with just one more body than the six needed for a quorum to conduct business.

As of today, however, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hasn’t scheduled  confirmation votes on three board nominations that have been awaiting action since summer. In an email, committee spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said she did not know the reason for the delay.

Although there have no recent meetings where the lack of a quorum has been an issue, “we look forward to having all the board vacancies filled and hope that happens as soon as possible,” USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer said, also by email.

The increasing number of empty seats on what is officially known as the Board of Governors comes as the Postal Service is grappling with record financial losses and questions about its long-term direction as the Internet continues to drain away business. Besides nine presidentially appointed part-time members, the board includes Postmaster General Pat Donahoe and Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman. Among other jobs, the board sets postal policy, directs agency spending and decides top officers’ salaries.

“Certainly the Postal Service could benefit from the advice and wisdom of more members who bring a wide range of expertise,” Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway said in an interview. The mail carrier also needs “people of status” to take its concerns to Congress, she added.

The commission, which oversees the Postal Service, is facing its own personnel issues. The terms of two of its five members recently expired; while they can serve another year, the Obama administration has yet to either renominate them or name replacements, Goldway said. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither Marshall, a Washington lawyer, nor the incoming board chairman, Mickey Barnett, a former state legislator and lawyer from New Mexico, could be reached for comment. Because the panel usually meets in private, its influence is hard to assess.

But George Gould, a consultant and former lobbyist for the National Association of Letter Carriers, called the board’s makeup “a serious concern.” The Postal Service’s challenges are so great that the board “has become more directly involved in policy than it has in the past,” Gould said. “I think you need people who really understand the Postal Service, understand government, understand the employees.”

Under the law, board members are supposed to be chosen for their experience in public service, law, accounting or demonstrated management ability. They collect a base annual salary of $30,000, along with as much as $12,600 depending on the number of meetings each year. Their seven-year terms can be extended for another year in the absence of a replacement.

Of the three nominees whose appointments are awaiting Senate action, two are no strangers to the Postal Service. James Miller, who headed the Office of Management and Budget during part of the Reagan administration, was on the board from 2003 until last year; Katherine Tobin, a senior Education Department official earlier in the Obama administration, served from 2006 to 2009.

The new member, if confirmed, would be Stephen Crawford, a public policy professor at George Washington University who has written on postal issues. In an interview, Crawford attributed the nomination holdup to the press of other business and the fact that Congress has mostly been out of session since the Senate committee held a hearing on his nomination in July.

But with lawmakers now consumed with tax and spending conundrums, Crawford wasn’t counting on a final confirmation vote before the 112th Congress effectively goes out of business next month.

“There may just be too many other things competing with the limited time left.”

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Carper urges curbs on Postal Regulatory Commission travel

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Some seven months after inquiring about overseas travel by Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway, Sen. Tom Carper is pressing some recommended changes for the commission as a whole. So far, it’s not clear whether the five-member oversight panel will go along.

In a Sept. 6 letter to Goldway, Carper questioned “the amount of time and resources devoted to international travel in recent years, particularly as the commission has struggled at times to fulfill its higher-priority statutory responsibilities in a timely manner.” He urged the PRC to limit such trips to what is “truly necessary” to fulfill its legal role in setting international postal policy. He also pressed the PRC to do more to document that it has explored other options—such as phone, fax and email—to conduct business before putting someone on a plane. Carper, D-Del., chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the commission and the U.S. Postal Service.

In a Sept. 11 reply, Goldway said she appreciated the “thoughtful review” and accompanying recommendations, but committed only to giving “serious consideration to those recommendations, which are in the spirit of improvements we have already made to our policies.” She added that the commission has come in “more than 30 percent” under its 2012 travel budget.

A PRC spokeswoman confirmed Friday that Goldway and two commission staff members are attending the Universal Postal Union’s quadrennial congress, which got under way Monday in Doha, Qatar, according to an official web site. Goldway is serving as deputy head of the U.S. delegation, the spokeswoman, Gail Adams, said.

Goldway, however, will be leaving for the event Oct. 3 and returning to Washington on Oct. 12, Adams added in an email. One staffer is already in Doha, while the other leaves today.

As Federal Times reported in February, Goldway at that point had taken 34 trips –11 of them overseas–costing almost $71,000 since becoming PRC chair in August 2009. Her predecessor, Dan Blair, had taken 25 trips worth some $59,000 during a slightly longer tenure. Since then, Goldway has attended a UPU meeting in Switzerland, as well as a weeklong “Postal Regulatory Dialogue” in Rio de Janeiro, where she was a speaker, according to commission records obtained by Federal Times. As of late last month, Goldway was the only commissioner to go abroad this calendar year, although some PRC staff have also attended overseas events.

Goldway has staunchly defended travel as relevant to her work and the commission’s role in helping to set international postal policy. “I know that travel raises questions,” she said in an interview earlier this year, “but I really feel that I’m doing an honest job and the right thing for the Postal Regulatory Commission and the country.”



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Sen. Carper presses the Postal Regulatory Commission for faster delivery

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Sen. Tom Carper is not happy with the Postal Regulatory Commission. More evidence of that fact emerged during yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Tony Hammond, nominated for another term on the five-member oversight body.

The session before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee lasted less than an hour; Hammond, a Missouri Republican who has served on the commission for most of the last decade, is likely to win easy Senate approval for another six-year stint.

But Carper, D-Del., took the occasion to ask again why the agency can’t move faster in issuing advisory opinions on proposed changes to national postal service. “Otherwise, I fear that the legitimacy and the role of the commission in these matters could be threatened,” he said.

It took the PRC almost a year to weigh in on the U.S. Postal Service’s bid to end most Saturday service.  And in many ways, Carper said, that March 2011 opinion “created more questions than it answered.” Now, the Postal Service wants to start closing mail processing plants as soon as a self-imposed moratorium expires in mid-May. But the PRC won’t be putting out its opinion on that planned downsizing—which is tied to a change in first-class mail delivery standards—until late July at the earliest.

“The Postal Service says it is acting on its plans in May because it urgently needs to begin making adjustments to its network before the fall, when mail volumes will ramp up due to the holiday season and the upcoming elections,” Carper said. “I want to see the same sense of urgency from the commission as it goes about its business in the coming weeks and months.”

Carper, of course, chairs the Senate homeland security subcommittee that oversees both the Postal Service and the commission. This isn’t the first time he has groused about the length of time needed for the Saturday delivery opinion; Hammond agreed that it was “unacceptable,” but added that he hadn’t set the schedule. More recently, Carper’s staff has been looking into travel by the commission’s chairman, Ruth Goldway, who is in Switzerland on a trip tied to a Universal Postal Union meeting and a conference sponsored by the State Department. In general, Goldway has defended her travel as justified by the commission’s expanded role under the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.

So, what’s this all about? In short, the PRC has turned out to be an unexpectedly influential player on postal restructuring efforts. True, its advisory opinions are legally non-binding, but they carry weight in the broader political debate. The commission’s conclusion last year that five-day delivery would save the Postal Service far less money than the mail carrier claimed was ready ammunition for congressional critics. Similarly, the Postal Service is itching to begin slashing the size of its processing plant network, with a goal of saving more than $2 billion annually. But given the number of witnesses and the volume of testimony, the commission can’t move any faster on the case than its current schedule, Goldway said in a recent interview.

Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you think is the best course for the Postal Service. Carper, the agency’s chief ally on Capitol Hill, frequently argues that USPS executives need more management flexibility to staunch huge losses and return the mail carrier to profitability. But for lawmakers and postal labor unions who warn that the Postal Service’s proposed cutbacks risk launching it into a “death spiral,” the commission is fully justified in taking a hard look at potentially irreversible service changes.

FedLine wouldn’t venture to say who’s right. Don’t, however, expect the tension over the commission’s role to dissipate any time soon.




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Amid scrutiny of her travel, Postal Regulatory Commission chief bound for Switzerland

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Barely two weeks after a prominent senator questioned her travel activities, Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway is unapologetically heading overseas.

“I know that travel raises questions,” Goldway said in a Friday interview two days before embarking on a 13-day trip to Switzerland,  “but I really feel that I’m doing an honest job and the right thing for the Postal Regulatory Commission and the country.”

After leaving on a flight from Washington this Sunday, Goldway will spend most of the next two weeks in the Swiss capital of Bern, according to an itinerary provided by the commission.  The first leg, running from Monday through Friday, will be for a gathering of the Universal Postal Union, an international coordinating body.  The second leg—which includes a side trip to Geneva—encompasses a meeting of women leaders titled “Sister Republics: Building Bridges—An Action Plan for Women’s Leadership,” according to the itinerary. That meeting is sponsored by the State Department, meaning that the PRC isn’t paying for it, a commission spokeswoman said today. Goldway is scheduled to speak during one session before returning to Washington on March 9, the itinerary indicates.

In the interview, Goldway described the Universal Postal Union meeting as directly related to the commission’s work.  On the agenda, for example, are possible changes worth tens of millions of dollars in added reimbursements to the financially ailing U.S. Postal Service for handling mail from other countries once it arrives in the United States, she said. Her participation in the “Sister Republics” meeting follows an invitation from the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Donald Beyer, who wrote in November that “we would be honored to have you share your experiences with us.”

But the trip comes as Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is scrutinizing Goldway’s travel activities since she became chairman in August 2009. Carper, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the PRC and the Postal Service, launched the review Feb. 8 after Federal Times and The Washington Post reported that the pace of Goldway’s travel was running above that of Dan Blair, who chaired the commission before her, even as the agency’s workload has grown amidst the Postal Service’s worsening financial crisis.

As of earlier this month, Goldway had taken 34 trips at a total cost of almost $71,000, including 11 overseas destinations, records showed. During a slightly longer tenure as chairman, Blair took 25 trips worth about $59,000.

Goldway, who publicly posted her travel records on the commission’s web site this week after giving them to Carper’s office, has defended her travel as relevant to her work and beneficial to the Postal Service and the mailing public.

In a Friday statement, however, Carper spokeswoman Emily Spain questioned Goldway’s priorities. The commission, which is funded through postal revenues, is currently reviewing the Postal Service’s plan to abandon overnight delivery of first-class mail as part of an aggressive cost-cutting agenda to close or consolidate more than 220 processing plants. While USPS officials say they want to proceed as soon as a self-imposed moratorium on plant closings expires in mid-May, the PRC won’t issue a legally required advisory opinion until late July at the earliest, according to public documents.

“Embarking on travel that does not appear to be closely related to the role the Postal Regulatory Commission has been given in addressing the Postal Service’s dire financial situation would appear ill-advised at this critical juncture,” Spain said.

Goldway responded that she and Carper would have to “respectfully disagree,” adding that she is continually engaged in PRC business while traveling. Before issuing the advisory opinion, the commission has to follow the Administrative Procedure Act, she said. Among other requirements, that means hearing from 13 witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages of documents. While it’s “unfortunate” that the timetable is longer than what the Postal Service wants, Goldway said, “in terms of the law, we’re not in a position to do anything different from what we’ve done.”

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Postal Regulatory Commission chairman responds (very publicly) to travel questions

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Postal Regulatory Commission Ruth Goldway has replied to a senator’s inquiry about her travel practices, publicly posting her response and a host of supporting documents on the agency’s web site.

In a letter last week to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Goldway attached a summary of her trips since becoming PRC chair in August 2009, and for good measure included itineraries and agendas, a synopsis of the commission’s travel policies and a listing of travel by her two immediate predecessors as chairman.

“This information demonstrates that commission travel is in support of statutory obligations, performed in a cost-efficient manner and benefits the commission, the [U.S.] Postal Service and the mailing public,” Goldway wrote.

Carper, who heads the Senate panel with oversight responsibility for the Postal Service and the commission, had sought the information earlier this month after Federal Times and The Washington Post reported that the pace of Goldway’s travel was running above that of Dan Blair, who chaired the commission before her.

“Given the Postal Service’s ongoing financial challenges and the amount of work the commission has on its plate, a significant increase in official travel by you—or any member of the commission—raises questions,” Carper wrote.  After reviewing the documents, Carper said Wednesday (via a spokeswoman)  that he and his staff would decide “what steps, if any, would be appropriate for the subcommittee to take.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, however, I expect the Postal Regulatory Commission to be more mindful of the Postal Service’s current financial challenges and its role in addressing those challenges when planning extensive travel for its members.” Carper also thanked Goldway for her cooperation thus far.

Typically, agencies refuse to release–or at least require a Freedom of Information Act request before doing so–their answers to congressional inquiries. In this case, it was Goldway’s decision to make all the material public, PRC spokeswoman Ann Fisher said in an email.

Carper’s letter “raised several important questions related to the statutory role, and strategic goals, of the commission.” Fisher said. “Chairman Goldway felt the public would benefit from seeing her responses.”

Updated on Feb. 22 to reflect Carper reaction.

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Carper seeks trip details from Postal Regulatory Commission chairman

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As expected, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., has formally asked Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway to explain all official travel since she assumed the position 2-1/2  years ago.

In a letter to Goldway sent today, Carper sought a detailed itinerary and justification for each official trip she’s taken–along with similar information for her two most recent predecessors—by Feb. 20. Carper, who chairs a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the U.S. Postal Service and the PRC, also requested details on the commission’s travel policy and any procedures in place to prevent wasteful or unneeded travel.

“Given the Postal Service’s ongoing financial challenges and the amount of work the commission has on its plate, a significant increase in official travel by you—or any member of the commission—raises questions,” Carper wrote.

The request follows Monday stories in Federal Times and The Washington Post that Goldway’s trip volume is up in comparison with her immediate predecessor, at a time when postal revenues—which fund the PRC’s $14.3 million budget—are down and the agency’s workload is increasing.  Goldway, however, has described travel as a normal part of the job and said she is confident that Carper will find that all trips were fully justified.

This is  not the first time the two have tangled.  Carper was not happy last year with the length of time it took the commission to issue a legally required advisory opinion on the Postal Service’s bid to end most Saturday delivery. In today’s letter, however, Carper tells Goldway that he is “appreciative of the steps that you, your fellow commissioners, and your staff have taken to improve commission operations and to keep my staff and me informed of your work and the commission’s progress.”

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