Senate seeks to slow closing of rural post offices

April 24, 2012 - 6:59 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate moved Tuesday to impose new restrictions on the closing of rural post offices, adopting a provision that would prevent them from being shuttered for at least a year.

Under the measure, the ailing Postal Service would be barred from closing post offices for one year if they are located in rural areas — those with fewer than 50,000 people. The exception would be if there was no community opposition.

After one year, the mail agency would have to take rural issues into special consideration, including economic impact, the quality of Internet broadband service and location. Post offices would generally be shielded from closing if the next closest mail facility was more than 10 miles away.

The provision was among revisions to a Senate bill aimed at stabilizing the ailing U.S. Postal Service by providing a short-term cash infusion while delaying controversial decisions on thousands of post office closings and ending Saturday mail delivery.

Senators were scheduled to vote on a final measure as early as Wednesday.

"Protecting our rural post offices is about more than just maintaining brick and mortar — our post offices are the lifeblood for towns across our state and a source of good-paying jobs in areas hard-hit by the economic downturn," said Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who co-sponsored the amendment, which was agreed to by voice vote. "This amendment protects rural post offices, with a realistic eye toward the future."

The mail agency, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, says it needs to begin closing thousands of low-revenue post offices and mail processing centers this year as part of a billion-dollar cost-cutting effort to become profitable again by 2015. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe previously agreed to delay post office closings until May 15 to allow Congress to pass legislation.

At stake are more than 100,000 jobs, part of a postal cost-cutting plan to save some $6.5 billion a year by closing up to 252 mail-processing centers and 3,700 post offices. But many local communities worry about layoffs, raising the ire of lawmakers in an election year.

Much of the Senate debate on Tuesday centered on finding ways to provide additional layers of protections to communities affected by potential closings. Bigger proposals that would have forced an immediate move to five-day-a-week mail delivery or establish an independent commission to make wide-ranging decisions on cuts and closings, were voted down.

The amendments approved Tuesday would:

—Delay closing of mail facilities until after the November elections to prevent disruption in states that heavily rely on voting by mail. The Postal Service had previously indicated that it would avoid most closings until after the election.

—Allow the Postal Regulatory Commission to veto any proposed postal closing that did not meet set criteria.

—Cap spending on government conferences and require all of the information to be posted on the Internet. The amendment, offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was approved on voice vote following the scandal over a federal agency spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at a training conference in Las Vegas.

The main postal bill seeks to cut about half the number of mail processing centers the Postal Services currently wants to close — from 252 to 125 — allowing more U.S. areas to maintain overnight first-class mail delivery for at least three more years. Beyond the one-year moratorium on closing rural post offices, the Postal Service would be required to undergo additional layers of approval before closing any mail facility.

In the meantime, the Postal Service would get a cash infusion of roughly $11 billion, basically a refund of overpayments it made in previous years to a federal retirement fund; the agency could use the money to pay down debt and offer buyouts to 100,000 postal employees. It would be allowed to make smaller annual payments into a future retiree health benefits account, which currently amounts to more than $5 billion a year; get more flexibility to cut worker compensation benefits; and be required to establish a chief innovation officer to find new ways to bring in postal revenue.