Postal Reform: Don’t Hold Your Breath

After the President’s Commission on the U.S. Postal Service issued its recommendations for reform last July, mailers were optimistic that legislation would be imminent. But while Congress held hearings on postal reform throughout the first three months of this year, it’s highly unlikely that a reform bill will be passed before the end of 2004.

At press time, the House and the Senate were scheduled to conduct a joint hearing on March 23 to hear from the Senate Government Affairs Committee and the House Government Reform Committee regarding the suggestions that would form the basis of postal reform bills from each house. Legislators within the House have “the ambitious hope that once a bill is out they’ll immediately move it to full committee markup and have it ready to go by the end of April,” says Gene Del Polito, president of the Arlington, VA-based trade group the Association for Postal Commerce (PostCom). “But by the time the Senate can put a bill together that’s close enough to the House bill to be supported in conference, and when you look at the number of legislative days available in the calendar, the probability that anything’s achievable is less than 50%.”

From April through July, Congress is off one week each month. Then between July 26 and Sept. 3, it adjourns for the “summer district work period.” Following a September with three vacation days for Labor Day, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, the schedule shows a “targeted adjournment” of Oct. 1. And during that time, most congressmen will be focusing on their reelection campaigns. “They need to have the floor time scheduled for the bill,” Del Polito says. “But if other problems arise in Congress that call for greater priority, there’s little likelihood that the Senate and House leadership will be able to give it their time for passage.”

Although another year will likely pass without postal reform, legislators, trade groups, unions, and mailers agree that it is urgently needed. As Rep. John McHugh (R-NY), who presided over the House hearings this year, said, the USPS “is not sustainable going forward in to the 21st century.”

Perhaps one of the most effective testimonies before the House came from Fred Smith, chairman of FedEx Corp., which both competes with the USPS and partners with the agency on delivery services such as Express Mail. Smith noted that between June 2000 and June 2003, FedEx’s domestic shipping volume dropped by more than 8%. “In response, we initiated a tough program of cost containment,” he said, referring to hiring freezes, reduced bonuses, and cuts in capital spending. But while the USPS also suffered from a decline in volume, under the current law it “is ill equipped to undertake the needed transformation.”

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