Congress Returns, But Clock Ticks on Postal, Privacy Bills

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Congress returns to work this week following its summer recess, but members have little time to pass postal reform or other DM-related legislation before the targeted adjournment date of Oct. 1.


Most pressing for direct marketers is legislation to revamp the U.S. Postal Service, especially because two bills in this session could affect postal rates in 2006. H.R. 4341, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, passed out of committee May 12, while the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee passed S. 2468 on June 2.


Both would repeal a provision requiring that money owed to the USPS because of an overpayment into the Civil Service Retirement System fund be held in an escrow account. Repealing this provision would free up $78 billion over 60 years, letting the postal service pay off debt to the U.S. Treasury, fund its healthcare liabilities and mitigate rate increases.


If that money isn't released, the postal service has said it will have to seek a double-digit rate increase for 2006. The USPS is expected to file a rate case next spring, and rates could rise in early 2006.


The bills also would return responsibility for funding CSRS pension benefits related to the military service of postal retirees -- a $27 billion obligation -- to the Treasury Department. No other federal agency has to make this payment.


Though reform gained momentum earlier this year, most industry insiders say there is little time to pass either bill, especially as neither has been scheduled for debate on the House or Senate floors. However, Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, has not given up.


"We are still working hard to push postal reform through Congress and on the president's desk before November," he said.


Cerasale is optimistic because the Senate and House committees that oversee the USPS -- led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, and Rep. Tom Davis, R-VA -- are determined to pass reform.


If reform isn't passed this year, both bills likely will be reintroduced and passed early next year, Cerasale said, in part because of letter writing and other efforts by groups such as the DMA and the 21st Century Mailers Coalition.


"The momentum we've built this year has been very important," he said.


Some industry insiders have expressed interest in seeing the CSRS issue taken out of the reform bills and added as an amendment to another bill or put into a smaller piece of legislation, but Cerasale does not think this will happen. He would prefer it stay in the reform bill. He also said that if reform legislation does not pass until next year -- after the USPS files its rate case -- postal officials could easily alter the filing.


The DMA also is monitoring two privacy bills in Congress, including a spyware bill approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in June that would allow fines up to $3 million for collecting personal information, diverting browsers and delivering some pop-up ads to computer users without their consent.


The Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act (SPY ACT) also would require software that collects personal information of computer users to notify the users of its installation, get the users' consent before installation and provide users with easy uninstall options. The SPY ACT was approved by the committee as an amendment to a spyware bill introduced last year by Rep. Mary Bono, R-CA.


The DMA generally supports the bill, Cerasale said, despite concerns that it could hamper "the growth of e-commerce." He said the House could take up the bill this week, and there is a companion bill in the Senate.


The other bill is the Children's Listbroker Privacy Act, introduced in March by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-OR, and Ted Stevens, R-AK. It would prohibit rental of personal information of children under 16 for marketing purposes without parental consent. The bill defines personal information as name, address, e-mail address, telephone number, Social Security number and any other information identifying a person. It also has a companion bill in the House.


"We support the premise of this bill, except there are some changes we'd like to see, such as the definition of the age of a child," Cerasale said.


No action has been taken on the bills, and none is scheduled, but he expects they will be reintroduced next session.


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