By ANDREW DAMSTEDT
Proposed Maryland Post Office Closures. Click for full-page map. Source: USPS.com. (Alison Kitchens)
BALTIMORE (September 27, 2011)—Congressmen and union workers rallied here Tuesday in support of a bill that could help revive the financially ailing U.S. Postal Service by allowing the agency access to $21 billion paid into its retirement fund.
"If we don't resolve this issue, my understanding is we are going to lose 126,000 jobs in the United States," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville. "That's unacceptable. I'm saying let's stand up and get the message out that we aren't using taxpayers' money."
The U.S. Postal Service has proposed cutting costs by $3 billion, laying off more than 110,000 workers nationwide and potentially closing 42 post offices and four processing facilities in Maryland, to shore up its depleted finances.
Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and John Sarbanes, D-Towson, joined Ruppersberger at the Baltimore Teachers Union with union leaders and postal workers at a rally to stump for HR-1351, a bill to allow the U.S. Postal Service to reduce required pension payments to meet current financial needs.
In 2006, Congress gave the Postal Service 10 years to fund 75 years in advance of future health benefits, amounting to $5.5 billion per year. That money, supporters said, caused the post office's financial woes, not the decrease in mail volume.
"Congress, you helped make this problem. We're saying very clearly we need you to correct it," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the National Action Network, Baltimore Chapter. "How can you expect a government agency ... to put aside billions of dollars for people not even born yet."
The bill introduced in Congress this year has 216 cosponsors and has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where Cummings is the ranking member.
"We know that there is going to have to be downsizing," Cummings said. "Everybody in this room knows that and it's not the post office's fault, it's not the workers' fault. It's just that first-class mail has gone down substantially. The Internet is taking over."
Cummings said committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., was stalling the legislation.
Issa sponsored his own bill addressing the Postal Service financial problems, titled the Postal Reform Act, which has only one other cosponsor, Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla.
Ali Ahmad, oversight committee spokesman, said in a phone interview that Issa's bill "is the only bill introduced this Congress that makes the cost-cutting structural reforms necessary to return the Postal Service to profitability."
Issa's bill sets up a commission to submit a plan to Congress to close or consolidate postal retail facilities, mail processing plants and offices; change to a five-day mail delivery schedule and eliminate postal rate preferences for political committees and reduce rate preferences for nonprofit organizations. That bill has moved through committee and is expected to come to a floor vote.
"The Postal Service needs to be free to make better business decisions to modernize its business models," Ahmad said. "The Postal Service can be profitable, but only through reforms."
Ahmad called it a myth that eliminating the requirement to fund pensions years in advance would solve the post office's financial troubles. If those mandates were eliminated, he said, the Postal Service would have an unfunded liability of nearly $100 billion by 2017.
Ruppersberger said it was a "no brainer" to approve the legislation to allow the Postal Service to dip into its overpaid pension funds to solve the post office's financial troubles.
The Postal Service is studying 3,600 low-activity offices for possible closure, including 42 in Maryland.
Nationally, the service has closed 186 facilities, laid off more than 110,000 workers and reduced costs by $12 billion since 2006, according to the service's information. Also during that time, first-class mail volume has declined by 25 percent, or 43 billion pieces, and automated mail-processing equipment has been installed, increasing efficiency, according to an email from Freda Sauter, Postal Service spokeswoman.
The four processing facilities under threat of closure in Maryland are in Cumberland, Easton, Gaithersburg and Waldorf. Sauter told Capital News Service that the Frederick Processing and Distribution Facility will close by the end of the year, with employees there being assigned either to Baltimore or the Frederick area.
She said those changes would not affect mail delivery.
Gatherers at Tuesday's rally made the postal slogan their own, chanting, "Rain or shine, sleet or snow, postal workers are on the go."
They said they understand that the number of workers still would be decreased, but they wanted to save as many jobs as they could.
"The right thing these days as everybody knows is creating jobs and saving jobs," Sarbannes said at the rally. "There are those who are determined to accomplish some kind of massive restructuring of the U.S. Postal Service. It doesn't make any kind of sense."