Sen. Tom Carper is not happy with the Postal Regulatory Commission. More evidence of that fact emerged during yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Tony Hammond, nominated for another term on the five-member oversight body.
The session before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee lasted less than an hour; Hammond, a Missouri Republican who has served on the commission for most of the last decade, is likely to win easy Senate approval for another six-year stint.
But Carper, D-Del., took the occasion to ask again why the agency can’t move faster in issuing advisory opinions on proposed changes to national postal service. “Otherwise, I fear that the legitimacy and the role of the commission in these matters could be threatened,” he said.
It took the PRC almost a year to weigh in on the U.S. Postal Service’s bid to end most Saturday service. And in many ways, Carper said, that March 2011 opinion “created more questions than it answered.” Now, the Postal Service wants to start closing mail processing plants as soon as a self-imposed moratorium expires in mid-May. But the PRC won’t be putting out its opinion on that planned downsizing—which is tied to a change in first-class mail delivery standards—until late July at the earliest.
“The Postal Service says it is acting on its plans in May because it urgently needs to begin making adjustments to its network before the fall, when mail volumes will ramp up due to the holiday season and the upcoming elections,” Carper said. “I want to see the same sense of urgency from the commission as it goes about its business in the coming weeks and months.”
Carper, of course, chairs the Senate homeland security subcommittee that oversees both the Postal Service and the commission. This isn’t the first time he has groused about the length of time needed for the Saturday delivery opinion; Hammond agreed that it was “unacceptable,” but added that he hadn’t set the schedule. More recently, Carper’s staff has been looking into travel by the commission’s chairman, Ruth Goldway, who is in Switzerland on a trip tied to a Universal Postal Union meeting and a conference sponsored by the State Department. In general, Goldway has defended her travel as justified by the commission’s expanded role under the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.
So, what’s this all about? In short, the PRC has turned out to be an unexpectedly influential player on postal restructuring efforts. True, its advisory opinions are legally non-binding, but they carry weight in the broader political debate. The commission’s conclusion last year that five-day delivery would save the Postal Service far less money than the mail carrier claimed was ready ammunition for congressional critics. Similarly, the Postal Service is itching to begin slashing the size of its processing plant network, with a goal of saving more than $2 billion annually. But given the number of witnesses and the volume of testimony, the commission can’t move any faster on the case than its current schedule, Goldway said in a recent interview.
Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you think is the best course for the Postal Service. Carper, the agency’s chief ally on Capitol Hill, frequently argues that USPS executives need more management flexibility to staunch huge losses and return the mail carrier to profitability. But for lawmakers and postal labor unions who warn that the Postal Service’s proposed cutbacks risk launching it into a “death spiral,” the commission is fully justified in taking a hard look at potentially irreversible service changes.
FedLine wouldn’t venture to say who’s right. Don’t, however, expect the tension over the commission’s role to dissipate any time soon.