H.R. 2309 has been on a slow track in the House of Representatives since the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the bill on January 17, 2012. It took the House Rules committee two months until it marked up provisions under its jurisdiction on March 29. Since then there has been no word about floor action even with the end of the moratorium on facility closures approaching.
Senate Votes Shows That Future of Rural Service Will Determine Future of Postal Reform
In the Senate, the coalition that passed S. 1789, the 21st Century Act of 2012 represented a coalition of Democrats and mostly rural-state Republicans. In particular, all Republican Senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Dakota, voted for the bill and opposed most amendments that would add elements of H.R. 2309 to the Senate bill. In addition Republican Senators from Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming either voted against one or more of the proposed amendments introducing elements of H.R.2309 or voted for final passage of S.1789.
The Senate vote also illustrated that the issue of rural postal services trumped balanced-budget orthodoxy Eight of the nine Republicans willing to have a”bust the budget” vote on their record came from rural states. They are
- Blunt (R-MO)
- Brown (R-MA)
- Cochran (R-MS)
- Collins (R-ME)
- Hoeven (R-ND)
- Moran (R-KS)
- Murkowski (R-AK)
- Snow (R-ME)
- Roberts (R-KS)
The one exception is Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, one of the bills co-sponsors.
Republican Support for the Senate approach Came from the Most Rural States
The Department of Agriculture defines rural areas based on whether a county is in a metropolitan area, and if it is not whether it is adjacent to a county that is in a rural area, and the total population in towns and cities in the county. The following map shows the most recent designation of urban and rural counties. Rural counties are colored blue, dark and light brown, and fluorescent and dark green. Republican Senators from states with a significant portion of the population in counties that are in the four most rural categories, those colored blue and dark and light brown, and fluorescent green, almost all supported the Senate approach to postal reform.
H.R. 2309 Most Likely Needs Clear Protection for Rural Postal Service to Pass
In order to pass, H.R. 2309 needs 218 Republican votes. While most Republicans will likely support a bill supported by the House leadership, gaining a majority requires limiting defections to only 24 House Republicans. Gaining 218 votes is not easy when local issues become more important than party loyalty or a Representative’s stated political philosophy
Gaining the 218 votes was clearly put in doubt on April 23, when 17 Republican members of the Congressional Rural Caucus signed a letter asking for changes in the bill that would protect service to rural communities. In particular, the caucus asked for:
additional changes when the bill comes to the floor. Such changes would include assurance small and rural post offices will not continue to be the Postal Service’s primary target for closure and rural business and residents will not lose access to service.
The Postal Service Rural Post Office Plan Likely Designed to Gain Support for Its Preferred Reform Path from Rural Republicans
The statement from the Postmaster General and Chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors on April 4 hinted that they have been in discussion with members of the House of Representatives that are most concerned about Rural Service.
Within the framework of our comprehensive plan and in consultation with members of the House and the Senate, we have continued to refine our approach with regard to rural Post Offices. We have done so as a result of listening carefully to the views of our customers and the communities we serve.
The statement went on to say that the Postal Service would have detailed plans that would lay to rest concerns about its path regarding rural Post Offices and rural Services.
In the coming weeks, the Postal Service will provide detailed plans describing the steps that it intends to take regarding rural Post Offices. We are committed to pursuing cost reduction strategies in a thoughtful way, and we believe these announcements will lay to rest many of the concerns about our path going forward.
In order to lay concerns to rest, the plan that the Postal Service announces today most likely represents the results of a negotiations between Republicans in the Congressional Rural Caucus and the Postal Service. Rural state Republicans had a strong hand in the negotiations as the Postal Service more than likely was willing to negotiate significant protections for rural Post Offices as the cost of operating rural Post Offices is relatively small as compared to savings it expects to receive from other provisions of H.R. 2309. The rural-state Republicans that negotiated the rural Post Office plan with the Postal Service will likely shortly announce that they will support H.R. 2309 as soon as the Postal Service’s plan is added as an amendment to the bill. If this amendment has not already been written, these Representative will likely have an amendment to H. R. 2309 ready in the next few days.
Republican members of the Congressional Rural Caucus likely represent the largest block of Republican opponents of H.R. 2309. If their votes are sufficient for Chairman Darrell Issa and Representative Ross to gain passage for H.R. 2309 then news reports in the next few days should provide some indication that the bill will come to the floor of the House before the House of Representative leaves Washington on May 18th. However, if there is no indication from the managers of H.R. 2309 that the bill is moving forward in the next few days, then the Postal Service’s rural Post Office plan was not sufficient to convince 218 House Republicans to support H.R. 2309.
The Postal Service has now released its plan to keep rural Post Office opens. The major change is that the Postal Service is breaking the link between a Post Office and Postmaster. Post Offices will in rural areas will be managed remotely and jobs in rural post offices will either be part time jobs with only those part-time jobs in offices open more than 6 hours a day being career positions.
The change also results in a significant reduction in salary for these positions to either $11.76 or $12.30 per hour. All employees will accrue leave but only those employees that work more than 30 hours a week will be eligible for health benefits.
The change will likely result in a major reduction in the number of full and part time career Postmasters working at the Postal Service. This requires the early incentive offers. Currently 70% of Postmasters are eligible for early retirement and another 10% will be eligible in two years.
Already, the Postal Service’s plan has received positive feedback from Senator Susan Collins. Her statement, quoted below suggests that the Postal Service’s plan will likely be sufficient to relieve concerns of members of Congress with concerns about Post Office closures.
“I am cautiously optimistic that the Postmaster General has now devised a plan that will help preserve some essential postal services for rural America, while allowing the Postal Service to reduce its costs as it must do. Reduced hours at certain post offices or their co-location with another facility or a retail store, if properly designed, could well accomplish both goals. To be effective, such a plan must, however, take into account people’s schedules and post offices should be open at times convenient to their customers. 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, shifting hours of some post offices, permitting other state or local services to be administered at post offices, or moving tiny post offices into grocery or other stores within the same community.
“It’s good news if, indeed, most of the 3,200 smaller post offices currently targeted by the Postal Service will not close, but rather that creative ways to reduce their costs will be explored. Involving communities and providing different options for mail service will both save the Postal Service money and also continue to ensure timely and effective access to postal services for customers. There should be clear minimum standards for service — which we establish in the bill just passed through the Senate — and communities should have a real voice in the decision.
“It is good news as well that the Postmaster General apparently has decided to implement some of the common-sense suggestions many of us have been urging for more than a year. I remain troubled that processing facilities could still be closed beginning just next week, which makes no sense at all given the progress on postal reform legislation. I expect to discuss this issue with the Postmaster General later today.”