Is Postal Reform Becoming One Big Cluster...Box?

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Here's how crazy the pursuit of postal reform has gotten in recent months.

Rep. Darrell Issa attempted to woo Rep. Elijah Cummings (above) for bipartisan postal reform.
Rep. Darrell Issa attempted to woo Rep. Elijah Cummings (above) for bipartisan postal reform.

First, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), frequent critic of the Obama Administration, sent a letter to ranking minority member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) urging him and his fellow Democrats to join Republican members in a bipartisan revision of his postal reform bill that would implement provisions from the President's 2015 budget.

Next, Issa appeared at a Postal Service subcommittee hearing to support a bill calling for the conversion of 15 million addresses over 10 years to cluster box delivery on the premise that it would keep dropped-off parcels safe for recipients (though jobs less safe for postal workers). Issa then suggested that Congress approve five-day mail delivery and use the savings to pump up the Highway Trust Fund, which runs out of money this summer and is a political hot potato.

That recommendation prompted reams of outraged editorials and a comment from Senate reform sponsor Tom Carper (D-DE) that the proposal “kicks the can down the road yet again on two pressing issues…and fails to solve either problem.”

One can only wonder whether Issa's stratagem elicited shrieks of horror or peals of laughter in the offices of USPS senior management, who have already financed the Federal Employee Retirement System and are begging for relief from pre-funding their retirees' healthcare benefits.

No stamp of approval

“To [Issa's] credit, he's trying to get something done on postal reform, but he wants it done his way,” says Hamilton Davison, president and executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association. “He's really got a clear vision of what he wants and not a lot of room for compromise. He hasn't done anything to get bipartisan support.”

One potential Democratic collaborator emerged during a subcommittee hearing on postal innovation. Witness Will Davis, CEO of hybrid mail pioneer Outbox, spun a tale of frustration in attempting to partner with the Post Office, which wasn't ready for a system in which people's mail is opened, scanned, and sent to them electronically.

Recipients can choose what mail they don't want to receive, and advertising mail often gets rejected. When Davis opined that USPS wasn't ready to embrace innovation, Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay delivered him a dose of reality. “Were you aware that advertising mail represented significant volume and that the Postal Service has a right to choose who works with them?” Lacy asked Davis.

Herding cats?

It's a sentiment USPS, labor unions, and direct mailers and catalogers can all agree on. “For legislation to be passed this year, one thing must happen,” says Peggy Hudson, SVP of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association. “All the stakeholders—mailers, unions, and the Postal Service—must come together and agree on what needs to be in the bill.”

Constituents of every member of Congress depend on the mail to some extent, so passing postal reform is high on Capitol Hill agendas. Higher, however, is getting reelected during one of the most important and challenging midterm campaigns in decades. All House members and a third of Senators will be stumping on the home front this summer. The only way they'll be helping the Post Office is with their own reelection mailers.

Legislation does have a way of being sped through Congress in lame duck sessions following the election, but that will only happen this year if the Democrats hold on to the Senate. “If the GOP takes the Senate, they're not going to do anything in the lame duck,” Davison says. “If the Republicans win, there is no hope for postal reform this year.”

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