Peters seeks to overhaul Postal Service's finances to boost performance

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — A new bipartisan bill in the Senate aims to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service's financial structure in an effort to improve persistent delivery problems and shore up the agency's long-term solvency after years of financial strain. 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, described his legislation as the first major piece of postal legislation in 15 years.

It has "significant" bipartisan support, including 10 Republican co-sponsors and 10 Democrats, that should ensure the bill advances in the divided chamber, Peters said.

"It is long overdue. I'm very pleased we're able to bring a coalition together, and we hope to move this legislation as quickly as we can," the Bloomfield Township Democrat said on a Thursday call.

Chairman Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., speaks during a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hybrid nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 22, 2021, to consider the nominees for Postal Service Governors.

The bill targets for elimination the requirement dating to 2006 that the Postal Service fund ahead of time all retiree health benefits, no matter the age of the employee, and would integrate retirees' health care with Medicare, the health care program for seniors, which together would save the agency $45.9 billion over 10 years, Peters said. 

"We have to make sure the Postal Service has sound financial footing so that they can continue to operate for many years to come," said Peters, whose committee has oversight over the Postal Service. "Part of the financial strain is related to some requirements that they have that no other business in this country has."

Peters was referring to the health benefits prefunding requirement, which no other company or federal agency is required to do. 

"We want to make sure that the Postal Service is put on the same footing as any other business entity," the senator added. "That's simply the fair thing to do, and it will also mean that there'll be more resources for more reliable delivery to our homes."

The bill also seeks to make changes in terms of service by mandating the Postal Service to continue delivering mail six days a week and requiring that the agency publish weekly service data on its website, allowing customers tosearch by for performance data by street address, ZIP code or post office box, according to the bill.

The agency also would have to deliver a report on its finances and operations to Congress twice a year, as the Postal Service forecasts an estimated $160 billion in losses over the next 10 years.

In this May 6, 2020, photo, United States Postal Service carrier Henrietta Dixon gets into her truck to deliver mail in Philadelphia.

The legislation includes new mechanisms to boost efficiency on the processing of magazines and other kinds of periodicals to ensure they don't impede first-class mail from moving through the system, Peters said.

Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the committee, is co-sponsoring the bill. 

Portman said in a statement that the Postal Service Reform Act of 2021, when coupled with the agency's 10-year plan, would "help turn around the substantial losses at the Postal Service over the last decade and ensure self-sustaining, high-quality postal service for all Americans.” 

As part of that 10-year plan, the Postal Service has proposed slowing its first-class letter delivery standard of one-to-three days to a one-to-five days, and reducing hours at some post offices.

The bill has support from both Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the postal board of governors, with whom lawmakers have been in regular communication, Peters said.

Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said the agency was "encouraged" to see the introduction of postal reform language but had not yet reviewed the language of the Senate bill. 

He noted the bill is similar to legislation advanced last week by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. That bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, would also end the prefunding mandate for health care and integrate workers into Medicare as well as require an online dashboard to track service performance.

"This will be a major step forward for financial sustainability of the Postal  Service," Partenheimer said. 

The Senate measure comes as postal customers in Metro Detroit continue to complain about delivery delays, in some cases going for days without service.

Peters acknowledged Thursday that the agency has a "long ways to go" on that front, but that delivery has improved "dramatically" since last summer and fall, when in on-time service plummeted. In some cases, 60% to 70% of first-class mail was arriving on time, based on the Postal Service's own service standards.

"Which is simply unacceptable, particularly with the delivery of medicines," Peters said, blaming the delays on changes instituted by DeJoy "without adequate analysis beforehand."

United States Postal Service Postmaster General Louis DeJoy looks on during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on "Legislative Proposals to Put the Postal Service on Sustainable Financial Footing" on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Washington.

Peters said the most recent figure in Metro Detroit is that roughly 86% of the mail is being delivered on time, which is below the national average. He wants to see that figure increase to the "high 90s."

Statewide, about 90% of mail is delivered on time, which is a little better than the nationwide average, Peters said. 

He declined to say whether DeJoy should keep his job in light of the negative impact the changes he imposed last year had on delivery times, saying the decision is up to the postal board of governors.

"Right now, I'm working with the postmaster general in order to move this legislation," Peters said.

"These are critically important reforms that we have to get through Congress and the Postmaster General has agreed to these changes, and is working to build support in Congress, particularly from the Republican side."

mburke@detroitnews.com