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Rahall: Congress must take action to stop postal closures
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) Thursday called on the Congressional leadership to move as quickly as possible to address the fiscal insolvency of the Postal Service and expressed his hope that the Postmaster General will refrain from closing additional post offices until the Congress has had an opportunity to advance postal reform legislation.
“The Congress must take action in order to stop these closures,” said Rahall, who has been vocal and active in opposing the closure of post offices and postal sorting facilities in southern West Virginia. “At issue is the basic right of citizens of a community to be heard. We must ensure that the Postal Service’s actions are grounded in the best interests of the people it was created to serve.”
In a detailed statement in behalf of the postal bill he introduced last month, Rahall urged passage of H.R. 4335, the Postal Service Accountability Act, which would empower the independent postal regulator, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), to block postal closures that would adversely impact mail delivery services in a community. It also would enable the Commission to set aside closure determinations that are unsupported by substantial evidence of cost savings.
“I am convinced that legitimate safety and convenience concerns of residents and businesses are not being sufficiently addressed – that many post offices’ fates are predetermined and that the public comment process, in too many instances, has become a perfunctory step in the closure process, as the Postal Service bulldozes ahead closing valued postal facilities for very little, if any, economic savings. We must provide a meaningful, long-term improvement to the current and flawed process of postal planning,” said Rahall.
Rahall noted the independent Postal Regulatory Commission’s findings in December 2011 that the Postal Service was unable to provide the data necessary to confirm its cost savings projections associated with the post offices proposed for closure. The Commission also expressed concerns about ensuring that alternatives are available to meet the needs of affected communities prior to a postal facility closure decision.
“The Commission has recently heard appeals on more than 60 individual post office closings,” the PRC Chairman noted last December, strongly rebuking the Postal Service’s closure process. “The records in these cases reveal a pattern of inaccurate and overly optimistic economic savings calculations and of careless disregard of community concerns. While the facts of those cases were not considered by the Commission in its Advisory Opinion, they nevertheless demonstrate an ongoing institutional bias within the Postal Service that presumes closing small post offices automatically provides cost savings and network efficiencies.”
In October 2011, Rahall contacted the Postmaster General to urge that the closure process be halted. Subsequently, the Postal Service announced that it would delay any closings or consolidations until May 15, 2012. The bill that was introduced by Rahall on March 29, 2012, is now pending before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the committee with jurisdiction over postal matters.
Full text of Rahall’s statement is below:
Extension of Remarks
The Honorable Nick J. Rahall (D-WV)
Remarks on H.R.4335, The Postal Service Accountability Act
April 19, 2012
On March 29, I introduced H.R. 4335, the Postal Service Accountability Act.
My bill would empower the independent postal regulator, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), to block postal closures where the Postal Service (USPS) does not give sufficient attention to the undue burden a closure would have on a community.
Under current law, when the Postal Service is considering closing a post office, the affected public must be notified. The Postal Service opens a 60-day comment period, which includes a public meeting to allow local citizens a chance to voice their concerns. Once the public comment period closes, should the Postal Service decide to close a post office, the public has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Postal Regulatory Commission.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the PRC may fault the USPS' decision to close a post office only if the PRC finds the decision to be arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law; without observance of procedure required by law; or unsupported by substantial evidence on the record. The PRC may require the USPS to reconsider its decision, but the ultimate authority to close a post office rests with the USPS.
My bill would give the PRC a binding authority to block a post office closure. It would require the Postal Service to consider the economic impact of a closure on a community, and empower the PRC to set aside a determination that is unsupported by substantial evidence regarding projected savings, mail delivery services, and community and worker impact. In addition, the Postal Service would be required to perform an after-the-fact review one year after a closure and make public its findings to ensure mail delivery services have been maintained.
My bill also would apply the revised appeals process to postal sorting facilities. Currently, there is no appeals process for mail processing facilities.
As well, my measure would prevent the Postal Service from proceeding with a closure without the written concurrence of three commissioners, halting the dubious practice of affirming closures by tie votes.
These are modest and practical changes designed to ensure that the Postal Service approaches these closures with an open mind and listens respectfully and attentively to community opinion. At issue is the basic right of citizens of a community to be heard. It will help to guard against the bureaucratic mentality, which too often takes root in executive agencies, that agency officials know best. We must ensure that the Postal Service’s actions are grounded in the best interests of the people it was created to serve.
In July 2011, when the Postal Service announced its Retail Access Optimization Initiative and its intention to study nearly 3,700 post offices nationwide for closure, including eighty-five in southern West Virginia, the Postal Service was already pursuing a host of closure studies for separate post offices, as well as the consolidation of postal sorting facilities, including eighteen post offices and three processing facilities in southern West Virginia.
Under the law, the Postal Service is required to consider the impact of a post office closure on a community, on the affected postal workers, and on mail delivery services. Federal law requires the USPS to “provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining."
And, yet, there have been serious doubts raised about the Postal Service’s adherence to these requirements. In its advisory opinion on the Postal Service’s RAOI proposal, the PRC found that the Postal Service was unable to provide the data necessary to confirm its cost savings projections associated with the post offices proposed for closure. The Commission also expressed concerns about ensuring that alternatives are available to meet the needs of affected communities prior to a postal facility closure decision.
In a concurring opinion, the PRC Chairman strongly rebuked the Postal Service’s closure process, noting: “The Commission has recently heard appeals on more than 60 individual post office closings. The records in these cases reveal a pattern of inaccurate and overly optimistic economic savings calculations and of careless disregard of community concerns. While the facts of those cases were not considered by the Commission in its Advisory Opinion, they nevertheless demonstrate an ongoing institutional bias within the Postal Service that presumes closing small post offices automatically provides cost savings and network efficiencies.”
The PRC’s findings echo what I am hearing anecdotally from my constituents – that the public comment process is a perfunctory exercise – just for show – as the Postal Service bulldozes ahead closing valued postal facilities for very little, if any, economic savings. This sentiment has become so frequent that it prompted me to contact the Postmaster General last October to question whether the public comment process is truly accomplishing its purpose, which is to give the public an opportunity to convey its views to the Postal Service and to give the Postal Service the opportunity to adjust its actions accordingly.
Within a two-month period last fall, the USPS Appalachian District scheduled more than forty public meetings in southern West Virginia, raising doubts that the Postal Service can appropriately manage the public feedback received from each meeting and prepare for continued mail delivery should a closure occur.
In one case, residents said that their post office was closed before rural delivery was fully established. In other instances, public meetings have been scheduled at inconvenient times, like Halloween night, limiting public participation.
In 2009, as part of a separate closure process, the Postal Service issued an emergency suspension of the Hacker Valley Post Office in Webster County, West Virginia. I said at the time that the action was unwarranted and I was later validated in my concerns by the Postal Regulatory Commission. In response, the Postal Service offered to solicit for a Contract Postal Unit (CPU) in Hacker Valley, which would be operated by a supplier under contract with the Postal Service to provide retail postal services. After soliciting bids in March 2011, postal officials abruptly ended the process, requiring me to contact the Postal Service to remedy the matter, which it did.
What happened in Hacker Valley underscores the need to keep a close eye on the Postal Service’s proposed closures. I am convinced that legitimate safety and convenience concerns of residents and businesses are not being sufficiently addressed – that many post offices’ fates are predetermined and that the public comment process, in too many instances, has become a perfunctory step in the closure process, instead of being used to truly assess legitimate safety and convenience issues, and to take steps to minimize the adverse impact on the community.
I also question the criteria used to select post offices for a closure study, noting the conflict with the Postal Service's statutory charter that requires the Postal Service to provide "a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services" to rural communities where post offices are not self-sustaining, explicitly prohibiting small post offices from being closed solely for operating at a deficit.
Despite this requirement, the Postal Service has utilized computer-driven criteria in identifying retail facilities for closure. Three of the four criteria are financially based and clearly target small facilities that are not heavy revenue producers. As such, it is not surprising that there is a concentration of closings in rural areas, where computer-driven criteria cannot fully reflect the importance of a post office.
Clearly, the Postal Service has a responsibility to ensure its long-term fiscal solvency, but that must not happen at the expense of its public service obligations in ensuring universal mail services.
The Postal Service is not FedEx or UPS, which can pick and choose between profitable and unprofitable markets. Nowhere does the law waive the Postal Service’s public service obligations if deficits run high. The Postal Service needs to look at other ways to become more profitable and competitive by improving and modernizing its services rather than cutting off rural customers.
Rural customers, more so than their urban counterparts, rely on the Postal Service for basic mail necessities – for sending bills and receiving checks, newspaper deliveries, and small businesses reaching customers – especially in areas where internet access is limited.
These closures will disrupt local economies and the lives of residents and businesses -- from seniors who depend on the delivery of life-sustaining mail-order drugs, to the communities where the post office is the heart of the neighborhood -- and there needs to be a better mechanism in place to ensure not only that public concerns are being addressed, but also that the public feels as though it is being heard. Some may want to view the Postal Service solely as a business, but it is still a public institution and it must remain responsive and accountable to the people.
The Congress must take action to reinforce the point, empowering an independent regulator to watch over the Postal Service to guard against overly optimistic savings projections and insufficient attention to community needs in the closure process.
I previously urged the Postmaster General to place a moratorium on postal closures until a practical and realistic plan for managing and responding to public concerns is provided to the American public. Subsequently, the Postal Service announced that it would delay any closings or consolidations until May 15, 2012. I recently wrote to the Postmaster General to ask that he extend the May 15 moratorium until the Congress has completed action on postal reform legislation.
In the coming weeks, the House is expected to consider such legislation. While I am opposed to the Committee reported bill in its current form, especially with regard to its eliminating six-day delivery and potentially expediting the closure process, I am hopeful that the House will consider and pass legislation that will help ensure that our small, rural postal facilities are not made to bear the brunt of the Postal Service’s nationwide budgetary challenges. I urge the House leadership to act expeditiously.