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Postal Service reform on the way from Congress

Congress is moving forward this week on both sides of Capitol Hill with ideas to reform the U.S. Postal Service, with some potential ideas touching ages-old mail traditions.

For most Americans, the changes are so far likely to boil down to a one-cent increase in the cost of stamps if the bill passes, and no expansion of the types of goods that are sold at post office branches. But other, more drastic ideas – such as ending Saturday mail delivery – remain possibilities.

The 2016 Postal Service Reform Act was unveiled Wednesday by House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, and the panel’s top Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Congress has failed for years to make changes to the perpetually troubled U.S. Postal Service, which last month posted a $2-billion net loss for the second fiscal quarter of 2016. So far this year, the House has moved slightly faster than the Senate to finally act on a bipartisan basis.

The House bill takes direct aim at what is considered the Postal Service’s biggest problem – health care costs for current and retired employees – by requiring them to enroll in Medicare parts A and B as their primary provider. According to the Postal Service, an estimated 76,000 retireees could be affected by that requirement.

The Postal Service’s obligations for retirees’ Medicare premiums would end within four years, and the agency’s attempt to prefund retirees’ health care costs as required by a 2006 law would theoretically improve.

The idea of broadening the list of goods that post offices are allowed to sell would be dropped in the House bill, with branches kept to the same mail delivery-based goods it now offers for purchase. Some lawmakers had suggested allowing the agency to raise revenue by offering non-mail goods such as coffee mugs or T-shirts.

The idea of curtailing Saturday mail delivery would also be dropped. Some lawmakers had suggested that as well, citing a 2015 University of Maryland survey that found two-thirds of U.S. citizens were willing to forego mail on Saturdays.

The one-cent stamp cost increase would only become reality if the House bill becomes law – and separately, the federal Postal Regulation Commission is required to conduct a rate review in 2017 anyway.

House Democrats pronounced themselves satisfied with the bill – Cummings, for example, said the bill “has basically everything I want.”

The Senate version of the bill is also still in committee, in the Homeland Security and Government Accountability panel. Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, told AMI Newswire on Thursday that he preferred to see the House act first.

“Let’s see what the House does,” Johnson said. “I’m going to see what they can pass, because we probably have the higher hurdle.”

The committee’s top Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, has been communicating with Chaffetz and Cummings about the competing bills, and issued a complimentary statement on the House bill late Wednesday.

On Thursday
, he said “there are more similarities than differences” between the two drafts, and that he expected final passage of a merged version sometime later this year.

Among the minor differences between the House and Senate bills, the Senate version would levy a 2.15 percent increase on market-dominant mail products including stamps, first-class mail and an array of other products. The Senate bill also makes permanent a 4.3 percent exigent rate surcharge -- a rate established after the 2008 recession to aid the Postal Service -- which the House bill does not include. Lastly, the bill also contains specific provisions to restore and improve mail service, which the House bill does not include.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association said the House bill was an improvement over the Senate bill, while expressing reservations, and  U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan also complimented the House bill -- but neither has yet endorsed it.

The House bill has been posted for a two-week public review period at https://oversight.house.gov/postalreform.