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Shutdown Watch–Day 12. More talk, no deal.

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Good morning! It’s another working (cue the snarky comments) weekend for members of Congress as news accounts describe lots of talking but no consensus on how to end the partial government shutdown and raise the nation’s debt ceiling in time to avoid default as early as next week.

Attention is now focused on the Senate, where Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., are working on legislation that would fund government through the end of March. Sequester-related cuts would continue, but agencies would have more flexibility in apportioning them, according to details reported by McClatchy. The plan would also raise the borrowing limit through the end of January and perhaps repeal a tax on medical devices.

But it’s not clear that such a plan can fly in the Republican-controlled House, where a proposal from GOP leaders to raise the debt ceiling until late November in return for talks over broader budget and tax code changes got a thumbs down from the Obama administration yesterday. That timetable “would put us right back where we are today in just six weeks, on the verge of Thanksgiving and the obviously important shopping season leading up to the holidays,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

There’s still no indication, by the way, of when the Senate will take up a House-passed bill to ensure that hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees are paid retroactively once the shutdown ends. In a summary of a letter released yesterday, Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Frank Wolf, R-Va., lead sponsors of the House measure, pleaded with Senate leaders to work with their members to end a reported “hold” on the bill.

In other news:

President Obama signed hastily passed legislation allowing the government to resume payment of “death gratuities” to the families of fallen service members. The measure means that the Defense Department will no longer need to outsource that assignment to a private foundation.

Obama also told a TV station that anti-federal worker  rhetoric is “damaging and destructive.”

The Defense Department has suspended all Combined Federal Campaign activities until the shutdown ends.

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com.

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Proposed federal workers’ comp changes; what’s your take?

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On Capitol Hill, members of Congress have had plenty to say about alleged abuse of the federal workers’ compensation program. Ricky Cook would like to offer a different view.

“I’m very upset at the perception that everybody who’s on workman’s compensation is abusing it,” Cook, a Federal Aviation Administration employee in the Kansas City, Kansas area, said in a phone interview this week. “That’s just not the case.”

Cook, who had been an air traffic control supervisor, suffered lasting spinal damage in an on-the-job accident in 2007. He was out of work for almost two years. Although the FAA eventually brought him back, his medication disqualified him from returning to his old position, so he’s now in a job paying a lot less and relies on workers’ comp to make up the difference. Which is why he’s concerned about a provision in Senate postal legislation that would eventually cut benefits for people in his situation from 75 percent of pre-injury pay to 50 percent. If that were to happen, Cook said, he might lose his home.

The bill passed the Senate last week; at this point, nothing comparable has gotten through the House. The original rationale for the proposed workers’ comp reductions was to lessen the incentive for feds to stay on the program long past normal retirement age. Some 2,000 U.S. Postal Service recipients are beyond the age of 70, while a half-dozen other federal employees are past the century mark, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said during the debate on the bill.

Collins has been leading the charge for change. Should the proposed benefit cuts in the bill become law, they would save about  $1.2 billion over 10 years, according to her office.  Although the legislation would grandfather in retirement-age beneficiaries already on workers’ comp, Cook, 46, is a long way from retirement.

So, there you have two sides. We at Federal Times would love to get other readers’ perspectives, particularly if you are or have been on workers’ comp.  Please email me at sreilly@federaltimes.com.

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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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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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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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Lawmakers blast proposed mail plant closings, but what next?

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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.

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Senators press for “improvements” to postal bill

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The Senate has yet to begin a formal debate over a proposed postal overhaul, but the jawboning is already well under way.

The latest development: 27 senators led by Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote the bill’s sponsors today urging them to consider some “significant improvements.”  Such as  protection for rural post offices; barring the U.S. Postal Service from a change in delivery service standards that could lead to the closing of up to 252 mail processing plants; and requiring the continuation of six-day-a-week mail delivery for at least another four years. They also call for creation of a blue-ribbon commission that would have six months to devise a new business model for the Postal Service “to achieve long-term fiscal sustainability.”

Apart from Sanders, the signers are all Democrats. Still to be seen is whether the bill’s sponsors, including Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and the committee’s top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, will consider any of their ideas. But the letter offers telling evidence for why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has yet to bring the bill up for debate weeks after it was placed on the Senate calendar.

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Lieberman, Collins: Freeze pay for third year

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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.

 

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Lawmakers to White House: About that reorganization . . .

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Well, chalk one up for congressional bipartisanship: Democrats and Republicans alike agree that lawmakers should have a say in the Obama administration’s government streamlining agenda.

“Reorganization of the executive branch is a shared responsibility,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., the respective chairs of the main House and Senate government oversight committees, said in a Friday letter to Jeffrey Zients, one of the White House management officials leading the effort.

Issa and Lieberman go on to ask for “a tentative timeline for development and implementation of the reorganization proposal, as well as regular updates during the review.” The two also recommend that they be included early on, the better to “contribute collaboratively” to the proposal’s development. Also signing the letter were the two committees’ ranking members, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

More than a month has passed since Obama announced plans to remodel the government in the interests of American economic competitiveness.  While the White House has thus far revealed little else about the project, more information will be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, Zients said a few days ago.

Although Lisa Brown, the reorganization’s co-director, had been scheduled to speak tomorrow at a National Academy of Public Administration forum, she will not be appearing because of a scheduling conflict, Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack said via email this afternoon.

Asked for comment on the letter, Mack said that Zients and Brown are starting to seek advice and suggestions from Congress, program administrators and relevant stakeholder groups.

FWIW, it may make sense for the White House to give the Hill a stake in the reorganization, given that Obama plans to ask Congress to approve the final product. But it’s also worth remembering—as former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., noted at a hearing last week– that lawmakers can be a hindrance as much as a help.

“Duplicate and overlapping programs frequently exist because of the way we in Congress legislate,” Davis told Issa’s committee. Jurisdiction, he added, “trumps all.”

[Updated Monday at 12:25 p.m. to reflect OMB comment and at 1:45 to note that Brown will not be appearing at National Academy of Public Administration forum.]

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FPS reform bill introduced

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Don’t expect much to happen in this year’s fast dwindling congressional session,  but a bi-partisan group of senators today introduced legislation to bolster the Federal Protective Service, responsible for security at some 9,000 federal buildings.

The bill would push FPS to hire 500 more full-time employees over the next four years, require the agency to do more to ensure the competence of contract guards, and mandate standards for checkpoint detection technologies for explosives and other threats at federal facilities, according to a news release from Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In a sting revealed last year, Government Accountability Office investigators succeeded in bringing bomb-making materials into 10 high-security federal buildings.

Besides Lieberman, the bill’s sponsors are the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, according to the release.

FPS is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

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