Craig The U.S. Senate last week passed legislation that could save rural post offices from closure for at least another year.
S. 1789, also known as the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012, passed the Senate with bipartisan support by a vote of 62-37.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., was drafted to help the U.S. Postal Service modify its business practices and explore ways to manage the agency’s debt, which is estimated to reach $8 billion by the end of the year.
It now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
“The Postal Service should adapt to its 21st-century challenges with a course that encourages innovation and creative business practices that allow it to maintain high service standards,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., in a news release. “With some significant improvements in the form of amendments, this bill now will help get the USPS on the right path.”
In its current form, S. 1789 protects all post offices from potential closure or consolidation for at least another year.
It also protects Saturday delivery for two years, expands services to include the shipping of wine and beer and ends the practice of prepaying employee pension funds, among others.
According to a 2006 federal law, the USPS is required to prepay employee health care and pension benefits to the tune of $5.5 billion each year.
If passed by the House and signed into law by President Barack Obama, the 21st Century Postal Service Act could return more than $11 billion in overpayments to the USPS and reduce other prepayment responsibilities to $3.5 billion annually.
More than 25 amendments also were considered during the weeklong debate.
Bennet and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., sponsored two of the amendments that were passed and added to the bill, both of which are aimed at protecting rural post offices.
Among Bennet’s amendments to S. 1789 are provisions to expand USPS retail services to include the issuance of Social Security cards and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
It also provides rural post offices with an opportunity to obtain a nonpaid advocate should closure studies resume at the end of the one-year moratorium extension.
“The Postal Service plays a critical role in our rural communities through services, such as the delivery of prescriptions to seniors and providing local businesses access to the broader market place,” Bennet said in the release. “As the Postal Service continues to consider the closure of a number of post offices in Colorado and across the country, it is vital that rural communities have their voices heard and have open communication with the Postal Service.
“This amendment will give communities the representation and respect they deserve throughout these proceedings and ensure the Postal Service remains accountable and accessible throughout the process.”
Udall’s amendment takes the campaign to save Colorado post offices a step further by removing all “rural” facilities from the Postal Service’s closure study list.
Udall borrows the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of rural as areas with populations less than 2,500.
If confirmed by the House, the Udall amendment would remove 25 of the original 71 Colorado post offices from the closure study list, including the Hamilton post office.
“While I understand the need to make the USPS leaner in the 21st century, it shouldn’t come on the backs of rural Coloradans,” Udall said in a news release. “Post offices, especially rural ones, anchor their communities by helping residents fulfill their mailing needs, seniors get prescription medication and entrepreneurs run their businesses.
“I hope my House colleagues will pass the bill as is, and quickly, before the moratorium on closures expires.”
In 2011, the USPS began a series of closure studies of more than 3,700 branches throughout the country in an effort to manage its more than $8 billion in debt and to trim its expenses.
Seventy-one post offices were slated for study in Colorado, many of which are located in rural areas.
In December 2011, at the behest of many Congressional legislators, USPS put a six-month moratorium on its closure studies to give lawmakers time to draft and enact legislation.
The moratorium expires May 15, leaving lawmakers in the House less than two weeks to consider the bill before sending it to Obama for signature.
But Congress currently stands in recess until Friday, and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., wasn’t sure whether House legislators would consider the Senate bill before the May 15 deadline.
“One thing that remains clear is that closing rural post offices is not the answer to solving the larger problems that the Postal Service faces. I commend Sen. Udall’s efforts on the Senate side, and I’ll continue to fight on the House side,” Tipton said. “I look forward to seeing a final version of a bill, be it a House or Senate version, taken up in the House to advance a solution to protect rural post offices.”