Congress, Bush Face Tricky Decisions

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With a great display of bipartisanship, Rep. Dan Burton, R-IN, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and ranking minority member Henry Waxman, D-CA, agreed that Danny Davis, D-IL, would be the point person on postal reform legislation.


That is, all interested parties are to give Davis their thoughts on postal reform. Some, including the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, have already done that. Several industry groups have gotten together to formulate a response to Davis.


It would appear that several of the postal-oriented trade associations agree with the governors that the postal service needs more operating flexibility. Indeed, the National Association of Letter Carriers has stated that in this competitive environment, the USPS needs flexibility in pricing, new product development and negotiations with customers.


So while some groups, usually those allied with newspapers or United Parcel Service, think more restrictive legislative change is necessary, those dependent on a competitive, healthy USPS support added postal service flexibility. However, there is disagreement among the flexibility proponents on changes to the contract-bargaining process with union employees. The postal service wants to change the process, which often results in an independent arbitrator deciding contract provisions. The USPS wants to introduce greater uncertainty into the negotiations using provisions similar to those in the Railway Labor Act.


But what is amazing to me is that Congress - without waiting to hear from Davis - is working toward passage of The Postmasters Fairness and Rights Act of 2001. This act grants postmasters binding arbitration if the association cannot reach agreement on compensation issues with the postal service.


The act also provides a mechanism for postmasters to raise operational concerns.


"The ultimate goal is to provide procedures to resolve differences and improve service without creating an adversarial relationship. Postmasters will become full partners within the postal service in order to improve services," said Rep. Connie Morella, R-MD, a lead sponsor of the legislation.


The procedures provided in this "fairness" act change the definition of what is the responsibility of postal management. What is not needed is more legislative development of management procedures. What is needed is the reform legislation that Davis is working on. Meanwhile, all other legislation dealing with reform or postal operations should be held in abeyance, unless it deals with the USPS' financial problems.


How can Congress call management to task if performance falters, when it defines operational and pay rules for management? Is it a stretch to think that Congress also may want to get back into the business of influencing the selection of local postmasters?


In a similar vein, the Bush administration has equally important decisions to make. With the retirement of Postal Rate Commission chairman Ed Gleiman and the expected vacancy of W.H. "Trey" LeBlanc's seat, two of the five seats on the commission will be vacant.


Much has been said about recent appointments and nominees to the chairs of the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. They have remarkably similar resumes. First, all are attorneys. Second, all spent a significant number of years working at the commission they now chair. Their service at those commissions ranged from four to 10 years. And all spent two to 13 years in private law practice.


Appointments to the PRC should be placed in the same category as appointments to those other commissions. While the PRC focuses on rate-setting, the rates it recommends affect $70 billion of USPS revenue. Let's not forget that in Rep. John McHugh's version of postal reform the PRC became the Postal Regulatory Commission, with some of the regulatory oversight powers held by the other commissions.


Let's see whether the administration's appointments to the PRC follow the pattern of respected individuals, with broad experience in the regulatory and private-sector worlds.
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