The postal reform vigil

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When Congress reconvened earlier this month, it gave itself one month to take care of business before adjourning for midterm elections. Media production executives are hopeful that postal reform legislation will finally make it to the Senate floor before adjournment.

"I'm 1,000% in favor of postal reform. The system we have now is very definitely antiquated and broken, and needs to be completely restructured," said Ron Brockman, production director at Vance Publishing Corp. "These rate cases that go on ad infinitum and these double-digit rate increases that hit us every year just because the Postal Service can't control its labor contracts and all of the other costs they have to justify are basically going to drive us all out of business."

Postal experts say there is a slim possibility that reform legislation could come to the floor in the current session, but warn that if it doesn't, it could be some time before a reform bill is reintroduced.

"In theory, it wouldn't take very long to get back to where we are now if postal reform doesn't go through because there was such apathy in the form of support in both houses of Congress," said David Straus, Washington, D.C., counsel for American Business Media and a partner in the law firm of Thompson Coburn.

But Straus pointed out that the staff people and members of Congress who have spent a decade getting reform this far may not want to do the legwork again. "It's like training a puppy," he said. "You have to constantly be on top of it. Some people will say: `Why bother? You want me to do all the work to get to where we were in August of 2006 when we can never get to September?"'

Postal reform has been on the minds of production executives as it's slowly crept forward through the legislative process. "We've been hearing about postal reform for years now. Until it becomes a political issue for someone to grandstand off of, I don't think it'll progress with any speed," said Robert Wilcox, manager of manufacturing for Bobit Business Media.

The House passed a reform bill last summer, and now the Senate needs to pass its version of the bill before the measure can be sent to President Bush. Issues holding up the legislation include negotiated service agreements, revised workers' compensation rules, work-sharing language and financial relief for military service obligations.

One of the main things production executives like about the legislation is that it would eliminate postal rate cases under their current form. The proposal is for rate increases not to exceed the annual change in the Consumer Price Index.

Negotiations are still taking place between the Bush administration, USPS and the Senate committee. One negotiator, who asked not to be named, said, "If it can get to the Senate floor, it will pass."

Straus agreed that the problem was not with anyone in Congress fighting against the bill, but in getting it out of the committee. He noted that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the bill's sponsor, is on the Senate's homeland security committee, "so any kind of potential terrorist action could completely divert her attention."

The negotiator remains optimistic. "It's not over till the fat lady sings," the negotiator said. "I know it's a popular view that there's no time and a lack of will, but I know that the people who have enormous capacity in postal areas are continuing to work behind the scenes to produce a successful postal reform effort. It's just a matter of if they can do it in such a short amount of time."

The negotiator said the primary issues that concerned ABM and others seem to have been resolved. "We're focused on seeing to it that there is no weakening of the provisions in the bill that protect ABM members, but it's not over yet," the negotiator said.

"Postage is one of the biggest expenses I have," Wilcox said. "Basically, it's always, 'We're close. We're close. We're close.' They've just got to close the deal for all of our sakes."

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