Postal reform, at long last

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If anything, the 109th Congress will be remembered for a rare act of bipartisanship in its waning hours: passing historic postal reform legislation to modernize the U.S. Postal Service and help its customers - the nation's mailers, big and small, as well as consumers.

That gesture is the first major makeover of the USPS since its initial reform in 1970. As reported by senior editor Melissa Campanelli, it was a decade in the making - as long as she's expertly covered postal affairs for this publication.

"It'll keep the rates low, and it'll also keep the rates predictable, which is what mailers want," Ms. Campanelli said. "It will make the rate-setting process similar to UPS and FedEx and DHL in that they have yearly increases, so mailers can plan for them."

The final legislation results from a deal among influential members of Congress, mailers and their lobbies and the White House. The provisions include a cap that will tie future postal rate increases to the rate of inflation and an exigency clause that spells out the conditions for emergency rate increases.

In the same legislation is language supporting the continuation of work-sharing agreements and the return of the military cost burden - $27 billion in pensions - to the Department of the Treasury.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the House and the Senate also shook hands on a deal relating to the level of authority given to the newly created Postal Regulatory Commission, currently the Postal Rate Commission. Per the bill, the commission has subpoena power to ensure that the USPS is complying with the law and upholding the interests of the mailing public. There's also language granting this regulatory body the authority to monitor the new rate system in the years ahead and make changes necessary to meet customer needs and uphold service standards. A new inspector general of the Postal Regulatory Commission will monitor the regulator in its use of such expanded powers.

Most lobbies are happy with this bill, including the Direct Marketing Association, Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, Association of Postal Commerce and the Mailers Council.

The postal reform legislation comes amid talks between the USPS and its various employee unions. Some have coalesced with the planned changes, while one is holding out. The hope is eventually all will fall in line with the restructuring that makes the USPS more competitive vis-à-vis its private-sector competition and nimble for the radical changes ahead in the way marketers reach out to consumers via the mail channel.

Now all President Bush has to do is sign the bill for it to become law. Ms. Campanelli thinks that's a foregone conclusion.

"The only way they could have brokered a deal in Congress to get it passed is for it to have been blessed by the Bush administration," she points out.

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