Lieberman at the center of hot debate over postal service

Washington — Unless Congress acts soon, the financially strapped U.S. Postal Service will cut deliveries of mail, raise stamp prices and shutter two processing centers and more than a dozen postal facilities in Connecticut.

Drastic steps must be taken, the postal service says, because it lost more than $9 billion last year and has struggled with falling mail volumes as Americans turn to email and pay bills online.

As head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which has jurisdiction over the postal service, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is trying to blunt the impact of the cost-cutting measures.

“We’re trying everything we can to save this great institution,” said Lieberman, an independent.

But his postal service bill failed to win enough support to move forward last week, leaving the future of about 100,000 postal employees in question.

Most Senate Republicans, and a handful of Democrats who think Lieberman’s bill fails to offer enough protection for postal workers, voted against the bill.

Lieberman will try to amend it over Congress’ two-week Easter break to win more support.

He said mail volume has dropped 21 percent in the past five years, largely because of the Internet. But the senator said the postal service, “which uses burros in the Grand Canyon to deliver mail and snowshoe-clad letter carriers to make deliveries in Alaska,” is still at the center of American life.

The Lieberman bill would also use billions in overpayments to a retirement fund to provide incentives to longtime postal workers to retire, and would allow the USPS to offer additional services, such as the sale of fishing licenses and the shipping of beer and wine.

Postal service unions and associations, such as the National Association of Letter Carriers, American Postal Workers Union and National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, have been critical of the Lieberman bill, but are not opposed to it outright.

“This legislation will provide short-term relief but inflict long-term damage on the U.S. Postal Service,” said American Postal Workers Union President Cliff Guffey.

As it now stands, Lieberman’s bill would let the postal service tap the surplus pension fund contributions to offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to up to 100,000 postal service employees who would lose their jobs — thousands of them in Connecticut — if 233 processing plants and about 2,000 small postal facilities are closed.

In Connecticut, the postal service wants to close two processing centers, one in Stamford and one in Wallingford, with some of their work shifted to a processing center in Hartford. The postal service also wants to close 15 small postal facilities in the state.

Lieberman’s legislation would also postpone ending Saturday delivery of mail for two years and allow the postal service to make additional money through new activities, including selling fishing licenses and delivering beer and wine.

At the heart of the unions’ complaints is Lieberman’s failure to end a practice they say is unfair and the cause of the postal services’ insolvency. The unions want an end to the requirement that the postal service pay about $5.5 billion each year in upfront costs to fund its pension plan.

“It’s like making you pay your American Express and MasterCard for things we haven’t even bought,” said the APWU’s Northeast Region Coordinator John Dirzious.

Government accountants say the payments are necessary to meet the postal services’ obligations in the face of an expected sharp rise in the number of retirees.

The unions also don’t like that Lieberman’s bill would only tap about $13 billion of surplus pension funds to put the postal service on a better financial footing. They say far more surplus funds could be used.

Lieberman’s bill would also fail to guarantee against the closure of postal facilities, or ensure that six-day delivery would continue after two years.

With a moratorium on the closing of postal facilities and the curtailment of services set to end May 15, union leaders are asking postal employees to lobby their senators during the Easter break. They want senators to insist on changes to Lieberman’s bill and to approve the amended legislation quickly when they return to Washington.

But even if the postal unions reach their goals in the Senate, “there will be a big struggle in the House,” Dirzious said.

The Republican-led House has proposed a bill that’s far less generous to postal workers than Lieberman’s.

Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Chris Murphy, D-5th District, wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in early March asking him to consider an alternative bill that would use billions of dollars in pension overpayments to prevent closures.

Their letter said the postal services’ plan would “impact almost every Connecticut resident, ranging from the 10,000 Connecticut postal workers whose jobs are directly threatened, to the seniors who may not receive their mail-order medications in time, to Connecticut communications companies that have a mutually dependent relationship with the Postal Service.”

But Boehner isn’t likely to reject his own party’s bill in favor of one promoted by Democrats. The best scenario for the unions and their allies in the magazine, direct mail and mail order industries is likely a compromise between the House and Senate that provides limited relief.