WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a postal service reform bill this week meant to stop a slew of post office and distribution centers from closing as early as next month.
Last year, the United States Postal Service, $13 billion in debt, released a list of 3,700 post offices and distribution centers it was considering closing as early as mid-May as a way of easing its financial burden. In Minnesota, 117 post offices and five distribution centers (many in rural areas) were on the chopping block.
Lawmakers in Washington offered up a slate of proposals meant to provide financial relief to the USPS while preventing the mass closings. The U.S. Senate passed a bill Wednesday giving the USPS $11 billion, most of it coming through a refund of overpayments to the federal retirement fund. The bill would offer incentives for early retirement and reduce the amount the postal service contributes to retiree health care programs.
That alone could keep most of the post offices and up to half of the distribution centers open, supporters say. But the bill was laden with other measures meant to stall disruptions of service that the USPS had planned, including provisions barring the closure of rural post offices for one year and ensuring six-day-a-week mail delivery for two years (the postal service has considered ending Saturday delivery as well). Both Minnesota Senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, voted for the bill and co-sponsored several of its amendments.
One such amendment, introduced by Franken and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, allows users of a local post office or processing center slated to close to challenge the decision with the Postal Regulatory Commission, which could then reverse the decision.
“Communities that [are] losing their post office would have a right to protest,” Franken said. “It really meant that people would feel there was some due process and that things weren’t arbitrary.”
‘Creating two classes of citizens’
Lawmakers have spent much of the last two weeks trying to make potential post offices closings personal.
For Franken, that meant the 367 residents of Calumet, Minn., a small mining community in Itasca County. He gave a speech on the floor of the Senate last week and held the town up as an example of what might happen if its post office closes, as it’s slated to.
“Especially in rural Minnesota, post offices are the center of communities,” he said. “If the Postal Service’s closure plan is implemented, it will have a devastating impact on rural Minnesota.”
Calumet Mayor John Tuorila told MinnPost that the residents of his aging community are willing to do about anything to keep their post office from closing down, even if it means losing Saturday delivery, something lawmakers in Washington had fought against.
“People in this town are willing to be flexible,” he said. “But they don’t want to lose their post office completely.”
In Duluth, officials say the loss of the city’s distribution center could drive away businesses like printers who need to have immediate access to major mail facilities.
More broadly, Mayor Don Ness warned that moving a distribution center (and thus slowing down the delivery process by first sending customer’s mail to the Twin Cities to be sorted) would marginalize rural customers.
“They are creating two classes of citizens — one that lives in close proximity to distribution centers and those that live further out and will have to wait a day or two as they wait for their mail to be shipped 200 miles south and be shipped back,” he said.
The USPS took a different view, saying it makes fiscal sense to close under-used post offices in the face of dwindling mail delivery.
“Given volume losses we have experienced over the past five years along with expected future trends, it is totally inappropriate in these economic times to keep unneeded facilities open,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a statement after the Senate vote. “There is simply not enough mail in our system today”
House must pass a bill
The U.S. House needs to pass a postal reform bill before it would become law, of course. Franken said he’s hopeful the House will take up the Senate’s bill (which passed with bipartisan support, 62-37).
But House members are considering a few different versions of a USPS bill reform bill. A Republican-introduced plan would create a commission to recommend post office closings and another to investigate other cost-cutting measures. It would allow the USPS to end Saturday delivery and would cut more broadly than the Senate bill.
An alternative plan would reform the Postal Service’s pension obligations (USPS is currently required to prefund retiree benefits 75 years into the future). The bill has 228 co-sponsors, including all four Minnesota Democrats and 32 House Republicans.
But Franken said the he hoped the issue wouldn’t be decided on partisan lines.
“The post office is very, very central to our country in so many way,” he said. “The post office is so important in so many ways and I hope this bill will help modernize this process.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry