I can't thank you and Dad enough for letting me go on this field trip to Washington, D.C. with my class. The D.C. spring weather is beautiful and the cherry blossoms are at full bloom. It's easy to see how folks become infected with the D.C. bug and want to stay forever.
We had a great day on Capitol Hill, Wednesday. I saw a really cool hearing on postal stuff. There were a bunch of congressmen and congresswomen, an official from the general accounting office (GAO), the Postmaster General (but I don't think he's really a "general." He doesn't wear a cool uniform or anything). There were some governors of the U.S. Postal Service.
We heard about the congressional hearing while watching TV. The TV story had described a very bad picture of waste, abuse and mismanagement that apparently has led to serious problems in postal finances. I guess the 34. stamp may not last long either. The USPS is already gearing up to file for another very large rate increase maybe as early as this summer.
The TV story talked about misused chauffeur-driven cars, squandered money on buildings and equipment and excessive advertising expenses (remember, the USPS sponsored Lance Armstrong and the US Cycling Team).
Well, we figured it would be a pretty impressive congressional hearing. Dan Burton, the chairman of the committee on government reform, is a pretty tough questioner and the possibility that postal rates would increase again so soon after the January hikes would probably make for lots of excitement.
A bunch of us went up to the Rayburn House office building to watch the hearing. You should have seen the huge line of folks in the hallway. Now I know why they call them "lobbyists" they spend a lot of time standing around the lobby trying to get into a hearing.
Eighteen US representatives showed up! Eleven Republicans and seven Democrats drifted in and out during the morning and afternoon to make statements or pose questions to the witnesses.
The longest part was the beginning. Each of the representatives read statements about how important the hearing was, how they wanted to thank the chairman for putting together such an important hearing, how they were worried about the future of the Postal Service and how they looked forward to hearing the witnesses in such an important hearing. But many of those folks left after they made their statements and didn't stay to hear the witnesses.
Many of the representatives seemed very interested in helping the USPS by drafting "postal reform legislation" that would allow the USPS to become more competitive or give the USPS greater freedom in setting postal rates or introducing new products.
Some of the other representatives must have watched the TV show. Their opening statements seemed very critical of the Postal Service and suggested that the USPS should focus on delivering mail and not selling coffee mugs or tee shirts. Those folks also pointed out that the USPS was only losing more money in its competitive ventures, instead of finding new electronic communication projects.
Most everybody was alarmed that the Postal Service could have gone from multi-billion dollar surpluses to a $3 billion or more loss this year even considering the January rate increases!
It's not like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" at all! One representative in particular was interested in reform legislation. I guess that Rep. John McHugh must have been working on reform stuff for a long time because everyone was talking about 22 bills that he'd introduced or something like that.
Anyway, it's tough to tell if USPS finances are really so bad that they might lose $3 billion dollars this year. I mean the guy from the GAO was relying on Postal Service-projected numbers for his testimony. And if the USPS really wants these legislative reforms, using scary and dire projected numbers seems to be a pretty smart tactic.
The GAO guy did say that he was adding the USPS transformational efforts to his "high-risk list." He said that the USPS must aggressively cut costs or improve productivity or they'll soon be in a crisis.
Everyone seemed to have nice things to say about the Postmaster General when it was his turn to testify. I guess he's leaving the USPS in May and I think they're all gonna miss him 'cause he's really good at testifying on Capitol Hill. That General was ready for any question, any criticism and any challenge that was thrown at him. He fended off questions about waste. He turned the tables on questions about excessive advertising. He criticized the labor arbitration process that sets the wages while heaping lots of sugary praise on the men and women who serve the Postal Service.
The USPS announced that they were thinking about dropping Saturday delivery to help reduce costs. Some representatives were loaded with questions and criticism about that possible move.
The Postmaster General flicked off all of the critical questions just as easily and comfortably as you might brush off a pesky fruit fly. He was able to shift the focus of the hearing away from criticism of USPS management and instead start lining up congressional support for postal reforms that would give the USPS whatever they wanted.
The USPS governors were almost humming to themselves when they took the stand. He had fended off all of the hard questions, and there was little left to do but drive the point home: If we don't get legislative freedoms to 1) raise rates whenever we want and if we don't get freedoms to 2) introduce any products that we want, then we're going to be forced to raise rates, cut service, close small post offices, halt Saturday delivery (and probably put green jalapeno sauce glue on the back of postage stamps).
The chairman even pleaded, "Is it absolutely essential that there be a rate increase in the not-so-distant future?" Or can the USPS rely on cost savings until the Congress is able to "fashion some kind of solution."
The USPS governor from Philadelphia, David Fineman, said, "We're going to try to attempt to do everything we can not to have a rate increase." However, he left no doubt that without reforms, large rate increases will be necessary very soon.
It was fun sitting in the hearing with all the big shot lobbyists and postal officials. I was able to pick up a bunch of inside stuff by listening to them during the breaks. (The hearing had to recess while everyone hustled onto the House floor for formal votes.)
Anyway, I guess the Postal Service folks were pleased with the general and with the GAO guy because his testimony didn't challenge those scary and dire numbers that they're relying upon to fuel postal reform talk.
Large mailers magazines, parcel shippers, nonprofits, advertisers and catalogers left the room certain that a huge rate hike proposal was imminent.
I'm still trying to figure out exactly what happened at that hearing Wednesday. I keep thinking back to that long line of lobbyists standing in the hallway of the Rayburn Building and wondering how this will all turn out. Will the USPS follow through with its threats? Will Congress capitulate and grant the USPS these new freedoms and flexibility? Will the unions be obliged to accept new approaches to setting their wages? Will mailers be hit with large rate hikes so soon after the last increases?
One thing I do know for sure. I'm going to spend more time in my computer science classes because I don't want to be in the mailing business stuck in the long lines and difficult debates over postal reform and the future of the Postal Service.
See you soon,
Contributed by Neal Denton, director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, 1211 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 620, Washington D.C. 20036-2701. Call 202-462-5132, or visit www.nonprofitmailers.org.