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Dec. 3 2012 08:21 AM

This is a tough article to write. In October, the editor of this publication had asked me to put together something that would give readers some idea of what the year ahead would mean for the postal world. At the time, the outcome of the election was just about anyone's to predict (i.e., who would be president, who would be in the majority in the House and Senate) and I said I would feel more comfortable taking on the task after the election results were known. Well, now the election results are known, and I still feel no more comfortable than before with taking on the role of postal seer. Simply put, the balance of power in Washington remains unchanged. We still have a Democrat in the White House, a Republican majority in the House, and a Democratic majority in the Senate. Sure, some of the numbers and players for the 113th Congress have changed, but it still may be too soon to discern whether public office holders' attitudes have changed.

As this is written, Congress is about to begin its Lame Duck session, so called because those who have been made lame by the election will have one more crack at shaping the nation's policy before they hobble out the door and go home. What's different this time is that both the Lucky Ducks and the Lame have a ton of important issues that must (or should) be addressed before the 112th calls it a day.

As I write this, the trade press is filled with reports that the House postal committee chairman is "hopeful" that Congress will deal with the postal issue. Sounds like he has good intentions. Just keep in mind the old saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Okay, enough of the doom and gloom. Here's what we know for sure. If Congress fails to pass a postal reform bill before year's end, Congress will have no option but to begin the postal reform legislative process all over again from scratch. We also know that one of the key proponents of reform, Sen. Susan Collins, will no longer be sitting in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee's ranking minority member seat. That "honor" will be Senator Tom Coburn's to enjoy (?).

If a postal reform bill doesn't make it to the President's desk, more than postal reform will be lost. So also will Sen. Collins' proposal to reform federal employee workers compensation provisions. Collins' proposal would bring to an end the practice of keeping federal workers on workers compensation in perpetuity, but would require them to convert their income payments to what would have been provided if they had remained gainfully employed until retirement. This one provision would save the nation's taxpayers billions over the next decade or so. Of course, it's also possible that the Collins measure could be enacted as an addendum to some other gotta pass measure.

But what happens if postal reform is passed? What then? Well, the what then will be shaped by the nature of what finally gets enacted. Here are just some of the key determining factors that could shape your postal future.

-- Will Congress finally agree to make the billions that have been overpaid by postal ratepayers into the Federal Employment Retirement System (FERS) for postal employees finally be made available for the Postal Service to use of other purposes?
-- If access to the FERS overpayment is granted, will Congress release the money to the Postal Service without encumbering it with spending earmarks or limitations?
-- Will Congress grant the Postal Service the flexibility and freedom it needs to better shape its physical and human infrastructure in a way that more appropriately and cost-efficiently meets the nation's changing postal needs over the decade that lies ahead?
-- Will Congress enact some provision that could compel significant postal change in the event the Postal Service doesn't get there on its own?
-- Will Congress and the President enact a law whose benefits will be long-lasting, or will this be just another short-term fix which soon will make postal reform a matter of congressional discussion and debate yet again?

Okay, enough about that, because postal reform isn't the only thing that could shape your postal future. Whether or not legislation is passed, the mail still must go through. Which is just another way of saying that reform bill or no, there still is a need for a universal mail delivery system, and Congress owes it to the nation to provide one. Given lawmakers' long-standing aversion to privatization, that means whether Congress provides will still be in the character of a public, governmental service. In all likelihood, it still will function with a statutory monopoly and will still be subject to regulatory oversight and review. In other words, you'll still have to contend with a postal provider that should have a real stake in serving the nation's mail service needs and facilitating your use of mail as a vehicle for commerce.

Take a look at what you already know lies ahead. Come 2013, the intelligent mail barcode (IMb) will supplant Postnet as the Postal Service's key mail processing and distribution mechanism. In short order, your eligibility for automation rates will be conditioned on your participation in the full service IMb program. You'll have to be ready to use eDocs. You'll have to be prepared for seamless acceptance and all that will entail. You'll have to be prepared to change your mail preparation, transportation, and entry schemes to match the Postal Service's changing requirements that will be tailored to reduce redundancies and wasteful costs. This means you should get and keep a keen eye on changing postal rules and procedures.

Keep in mind one very important thing. Postal "discounts" are provided in recognition of whatever work you do to prepare and enter your mail in the most cost-efficient manner the Postal Service deems useful to its operation. No rate and no discount is a God-given right. Such favorable postal treatment will exist only as long as the Postal Service deems it desirable. As the Postal Service's needs change, so also will its postal rate structure. Be sharp enough to spot the trends and to prepare yourself for those things that can very materially affect your business.

Remember the old saying: "There are those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened." Now is not the time to just sit around and watch and wonder. Stay alert. Get involved. (And, yes, joining PostCom is a good place to begin.)

Gene Del Polito is President, PostCom.