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Mr. MERKLEY. Madam President, I rise today to address an issue that goes to the very heart of our rural communities--our post offices.
First, let's set the context. Our Postal Service is facing a challenging and difficult situation, no doubt. Americans' habits with first-class mail have changed, and there is greater competition for packages with groups such as FedEx and UPS. But perhaps the biggest wound to the post office's bottom line is one that Congress imposed: a $5.5 billion yearly financing of health care costs 75 years into the future. That is health care costs not just for folks who aren't yet employed with the post office but for future employees who have not yet been born. So, yes, the post office system must restructure, and it should start with Congress reversing the $5.5 billion yearly requirement for advanced yearly health care payments.
Let's go to the other end of the spectrum, which absolutely does not make sense, and that is to close our rural post offices. In a rural town, the post office is the only place where nearby residents can send and receive mail. But it is more than that: It is a shipping center for the small businesses of the communities. It is the pharmacy for seniors and others who need medicines through the mail. It is the community center where folks gather and exchange information. In short, it is the very heart of our rural communities.
Let's start by examining the critical role of rural post offices on small businesses. Virtually every small town is home to a host of small businesses that take orders through the mail and ship their products through the mail. What would happen to the efficiency of a small business if it had to drive an additional 50 miles per day in order to pick up orders and mail products? Well, quite obviously, it would destroy their efficiency, and they would think about shutting down or they would think about moving.
What would happen to the profit margin of a small business if they had to spend three or four times more on gas--very expensive gas, as we all know? Obviously, it would do a lot of damage to their bottom line and, again, they would think about shutting down or moving.
What would the impact be to that small community of the small businesses shutting down and moving? Well, it would do enormous damage. I think no one would dispute that. So we need to be clear that when we are talking about shutting down rural post offices that are many miles from the next possible opportunity to receive orders and ship products, we are talking about destroying the economic heart of our small towns. It is economic havoc, and it is unacceptable.
Here is the irony. Folks come to the floor of the Senate and talk about economic development. They talk about creating jobs. They talk about how small businesses are the job factory. And they are right on every single point. So if there were no post office in a small community, the very first thing we would do for economic development is to create one so the small businesses can pick up their orders and ship their products. So how is it possible we are considering a bill that is going to shut down these rural post offices that are so essential to small businesses across rural America?
Another powerful role of rural post offices is to deliver critical medicine to America's seniors. What happens if seniors cannot receive their medicines through the mail? One of my colleagues glibly said: Well, of course, they get it from FedEx.
Well, I beg to differ because FedEx uses the postal system to deliver medicines the last mile and to deliver packages the last mile. So, no; they simply can't get their medicines through FedEx. Now they are driving roundtrip 50 miles, sometimes on impassable roads, in order to get critical medicines? Well, they will start thinking about moving.
Then there is the fact that these post offices are the places where citizens gather, where they exchange information, where they find out what is going on. Indeed, sometimes even the last small store has closed in these communities of 200 or 300 families, so then it is the post office that is the heart of communication. So if we take away the small business, we take away the seniors, we take away the communication hub, and we do enormous damage. Why is that bill being considered with this clause on the floor of the Senate? We must change that.
That is why a number of us are putting forward an amendment to say, no;
this is absolutely wrong--wrong on economic development, wrong on service to our senior citizens, and wrong in understanding the cultural heart of our rural communities.
I am going to focus on some comments from two communities in Oregon--two that are on the list of 41 post offices the Postmaster General said were slated for possible consideration for closing. This is a picture of the Tiller Post Office. It is 16 miles from the next nearest post office. Now, imagine being 5 miles from Tiller or 10 miles from Tiller and another 16 miles from the next post office. Now we are talking about 40 to 50 miles roundtrip every single day to pick up orders, ship products, and get medicines. It doesn't make sense.
Here is a letter from Diana Farris, a former postmaster in Tiller. She writes:
Tiller is one such community, where in many ways, time stands still and new technology is beyond their grasp. In Tiller, cellular phone service is unavailable. DSL and cable internet service are unavailable, satellite service is overpriced with the majority of residents unable to afford it and there is no Wi-Fi access in the area.
Dial up Internet is available (when the poorly maintained telephone service is operational) at top speeds of approximately 24 to 26k, so slow that many websites, including USPS--
That is the U.S. Postal Service--
time out before you can access needed info.
The unemployment rate has risen to 13 percent in Douglas County--
That happens to be the county where I was born in rural southern Oregon--
and the lowest gas price in Tiller in the last few months has been $3.95 per gallon. For communities like this, the local Post Office remains the only option.
That is the end of her letter.
In Tiller, the nearest post office, if Tiller were to close, is 16 miles away. It would mean, a roundtrip, a full hour's drive through winding mountain roads, and that is assuming the best weather and road conditions.
Because of that difficult drive, closing the Tiller Post Office would have a devastating impact on small businesses that rely on the Postal Service to ship their goods.
Here is a letter from Alexandra Petrowski who owns a small business with her husband in Tiller called Singing Falls Mohair. She writes:
We utilize the services of the U.S. Post Office extensively. I would estimate that between 3 and 5 packages go out from our home to destinations all over the world on a daily basis.
We sell our products on Ebay and the business is flourishing! Our growing market is worldwide using the U.S. mail system every day of the week excluding Sundays. In the Ebay marketplace, timely mailing is an integral part of good customer service.
As it is, the Tiller Post Office is seven miles from our rural mountain ranch. A closure of the Tiller Post Office would require a 45-mile round trip journey that would severely impact our modest profit margin.
We have been engaged in this business for 30+ years. We are seniors and rely extensively on our cottage industry to sustain our ranch operation. Would closing Tiller's Post Office mean effectively an end to our business? The answer at this point in time is that it would seriously jeopardize our business.
Now let's turn to Malheur County and the town of Juntura. This is a picture of Juntura Post Office, approximately 19 miles, or 20 miles if we round it off, to the nearest additional post office. I have a report from a citizen of Juntura named Laura Williams. She details the negative impacts that closing Juntura Post Office would have on the community. Her report is 42 pages long, an incredibly researched and detailed study of the impact that closing this modest modular post office would have on the rural community of Juntura.
Let me read a little bit from her report. She writes:
Juntura residents will either have to drive to Drewsey, to the west, to mail packages, buy money orders and complete a variety of other transactions, or they'll have to drive east to Harper, 34 miles away, a route that winds through a river canyon dangerously choked with deer during the winter months. In essence, Juntura is between a rock and a hard place.
She notes in her letter that 25 percent of Juntura's post office users are seniors who would be particularly impacted by these changes as they rely heavily on the Postal Service to receive medication and may have difficulty driving the long distances required in the particularly hazardous winter months. There is just one word in bold on the front page of her report, and it sums up the closure of the Juntura Post Office. The word is ``disastrous.'' That is how she sums up her 42-page report. The impact would be disastrous on this town of Juntura, this modest structure open a couple of hours a day, serving the citizens, providing the money orders, providing the stamps, providing the ability to receive orders and to send packages. Every part and role it plays she has detailed.
These are just a few stories from rural post offices across America, but these comments are far from being isolated. I think we would find very similar comments from every single small town where these towns of modest size depend on these post offices for critical services.
I have heard these comments all across Oregon. Two weeks ago I visited Fort Klamath, which is also on the closure list. Residents converged once word went out that I was at the post office. People started arriving, cars started arriving, people started sharing their stories, and I would like to share a couple of them.
I want to start with Jeanette and Bob Evans. Bob is a veteran who receives medication through the mail that often needs to be scanned and signed for. They would need to take a 30-mile trip to pick up medications if Fort Klamath Post Office closes. Jeanette and Bob pointed out that they have a rental business that must follow State law requiring many documents be sent via first-class mail verifying the date of notification. Again, closure would force them to take 30-mile trips to Chiloquin to process this mail correctly.
Fort Klamath is a seasonal community, and the post office is the only place during the winter months where the people gather and meet each other. Without the post office, friends and neighbors will be traveling snowy, icy roads to get mail 15 miles away.
Heidi McLean comes to the Fort Klamath Post Office. She shared these comments. She is a proprietor of the Aspen Inn in Fort Klamath that operates seasonally. She uses the post office daily as they send out packages to everyone interested in staying with them during the season. They could get by with fewer days or partial days, but they feel very strongly they need access to a local post office. A 30-mile roundtrip to Chiloquin would be a serious problem for their small business.
That is why, in partnership with a number of my colleagues, I am offering an amendment to this bill that would create a 2-year moratorium on the closure of rural post offices and would ensure that future closures meet certain conditions.
Under those conditions, no rural post office could be closed unless seniors and persons with disabilities will receive the same or substantially similar service, including access to prescription medicine through the mail; businesses in the community will not suffer economic loss, and the economic loss to the community resulting from the closure will not exceed the savings the Postal Service obtains by closing the rural post office--and that, by the way, goes to a key point which is, it is much more efficient in terms of the economy to have a common mail service in the heart of a small town than to ask hundreds of families to drive 50 or more miles daily to obtain their mail. That makes no sense. It is an enormous waste of citizens' time, an enormous cost in gasoline, in both cases devastating and economically idiotic.
Let any Member come to the floor and defend shutting down a rural post office, requiring hundreds of families to drive 50 miles every day to get their mail, when for a couple hours a day you could have a post office open, and they can access it and support their small businesses, support their access to medicines.
Let's be clear: This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. This is about critical infrastructure for our small towns. I thank Senator Lee, who has worked on this issue in brainstorming with me, Senator McCaskill, Senator Tester, Senator Baucus, and others, who are all working on this issue.
I agree that we do need to reform the Postal Service for the 21st century.
Conditions have changed, and we need to start by reversing the $5.5 billion advance payment for folks yet unborn for health care payments. But we must not carve the heart out of our rural communities.
So for the citizens of Tiller, for the citizens of Juntura, for the citizens of Fort Klamath, and for the citizens of small towns across our Nation who depend on these rural post offices, I urge my colleagues to support the amendment I and others are offering.
Madam President, I yield the floor.
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Mr. MERKLEY. Madam President, I thank my colleague from Connecticut. I appreciate him addressing this issue and I look forward to working with him.
I understand efforts were made to identify issues the Postal Service must consider before closing a post office. But the key is not simply to have them consider an issue but to have a standard by which it can be evaluated whether that standard has been met. That is the critical distinction, which then allows the review commission, which the Senators have appropriately included in the bill, to have a standard; simply: Did the Postal Service consider this? They will say, yes, they did consider it. But did it have a substantial impact in damaging the local economy? Now there is a standard for the review commission.
I look forward to working with the Senator and thank him so much. And I thank Senator Collins and Senator Carper, who have been working to help address this issue as well.
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