By Representative Elijah Cummings
The House Republican leadership is failing to address the financial crisis faced by the United States Postal Service.
The Postal Service is due to default Wednesday on a $5.5 billion payment required by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, passed in 2006 to make major reforms.
To pay for other parts of the bill and still make sure it remained revenue-neutral, Congress required the Postal Service to begin prefunding nearly 100 percent of its future retiree health care costs over a 10-year period.
While this may have made budgetary sense at the time, Congress did not anticipate the 2008 economic crisis and its exacerbating effects on the Postal Service's finances, which were already struggling with declining mail volume as Internet use increased.
Though the Postal Service now has more than $45 billion in prepaid retiree health benefits funding, the law requires an additional $5.6 billion payment by Sept. 30, 2012.
Just as it is expected to miss Wednesday's payment, the Postal Service is not expected to make the payment due in September either.
Faced with these two imminent defaults, Republican House leaders have failed to bring any postal reform legislation to the floor.
The Senate earlier this year passed comprehensive, bipartisan legislation to reform Postal Service operations. Working together, Democrats and Republicans passed a host of reforms -- including extending the time for the Postal Service to meet its retiree health benefits obligations.
Republican House leaders, in contrast, have shown little interest in taking on this issue. And when they have, they used it only to further partisan ideological divides rather than develop common-sense solutions.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on which I serve as ranking member, in October adopted a partisan bill, introduced by Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.).
Their bill would place the Postal Service under a control board if it defaults on any payments, and it would establish a BRAC-like commission -- like those that organized military base closures -- to oversee the closure of post offices and mail processing plants.
The bill would not address the retiree health prepayment schedule created by Congress and, instead, would put most of the burden of right-sizing the Postal Service on the backs of postal employees.
This bill, which moved through the committee on a strictly party-line vote, was not a serious effort to develop a bipartisan solution to address a truly national issue.
The Senate bill is not perfect. But it is an important starting point. The House could quickly consider the Senate legislation, with bipartisan modifications, to address the Postal Service's challenges.
Apparently, however, House Republican leaders see no benefit in this.
Last week on the House floor, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) pressed Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on whether the Republicans planned to bring legislation to the floor to help the Postal Service avoid Wednesday's default.
"There is no risk of that in the short term," Cantor replied.
His statement disregarded widespread warnings. Just a day earlier, the Postal Service inspector general reported: "Without legislation to eliminate or defer prefunding payments into the Retiree Health Benefits Fund, the U.S. Postal Service will likely default on the $11.1 billion in payments due in fiscal year 2012."
The rationale for this delay, and Cantor's statement, seems to be that House Republicans do not have the votes for their partisan legislation -- and would rather do nothing than consider the bipartisan Senate bill.
In practical terms, Wednesday's default has no immediate consequences for Postal Service customers. Post offices will be open tomorrow, and mail will still be delivered to more than 150 million delivery points across the country.
But the Postal Service is continuing to lose money. By next year, it will face true insolvency. At that time, it will be unable to make payroll or pay its networks of suppliers. Eventually, it will be unable to deliver mail for the American people.
Republican House leaders should not wait until this happens. The House should work toward bipartisan, comprehensive legislation that addresses the prepayment schedule -- as well as the Postal Service's long-term solvency.
We need to ensure that the Postal Service remains the link that binds our nation together, as it has for more than 200 years.