- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reacting swiftly to the scandal over a Las Vegas spending spree by employees at the General Services Administration, the Senate moved Tuesday to require federal agencies to do more to justify conferences and imposed a $500,000 limit on spending for each meeting.

Lawmakers easily voted to attach those restrictions to a bill overhauling the U.S. Postal Service to try to set the blighted agency on firmer financial footing.

The new rules on agency conferences, which still would have to pass the House and be signed into law to take effect, were proposed just weeks after a report said GSA employees spent $820,000 on a lavish conference that included a fortune teller and $7,000 spent on sushi. That auditor’s report led to the resignation of the head of the GSA and could lead to criminal charges.

Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who proposed the rules, said he didn’t want to end conferences but that it was time to impose restrictions that would make agencies think more carefully about what they approve.

“This is just simple, good government transparency,” Mr. Coburn said. “It’s simply a good government program to get some visibility on what we’re spending on conferences.”

His amendment was adopted by voice vote as part of the Postal Service bill.

Seeking a blueprint that achieves the necessary savings for the Postal Service without shuttering too many offices, lawmakers passed amendments making it harder to close post offices but left open the door to eliminating Saturday service two years from now. They also preserved cuts to Postal Service workers’ compensation.

Facing an $8.3 billion budget gap this year, Postal Service officials had told Congress that the agency needed to act by next month or it would start shutting down some post offices and mail processing centers, scale back to five-day service and raise stamp prices. The agency has been running up massive deficits for years as fewer Americans use mail services and the economy struggles to recover from a recession.

Lawmakers said they came up with a more measured approach that would ease in reforms while making sure Americans still have access to postal services.

Sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, the plan would direct the Postal Service to downsize post offices and mailing centers instead of closing them, cut down on bloated workers’ compensation costs, and make it easier for the agency to prepay retiree health care benefits.

Even though the legislation is supported by Republicans and Democrats, it didn’t pass without a fight, as some budget hawks tried to shoot it down under budget rules, charging that the proposal would violate debt ceiling limits set last summer.

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s official score, the bill would add $34 billion to the deficit under federal accounting rules.

Supporters, though, said that was an accounting quirk caused by the way the independent agency’s funds are counted against the federal budget. They said some money is a refund the Postal Service should receive anyway while the rest will be funded by post office customers, not taxpayers in general.

“We are not talking about tax dollars from the Postal Service … so I urge my colleagues to vote for the motion to waive,” Ms. Collins said. “If they do not and this bill falls, it will spell the end of the Postal Service.”

As often happens with bipartisan legislation that is likely to pass, lawmakers introduced dozens of amendments through Tuesday afternoon. They appeared willing to tweak the bill but were more hesitant to enact major changes.

They adopted measures encouraging post offices to share space with local businesses, requiring regulators to consider the effect on the local economy before shuttering a post office and delaying rural closings for one year.

But they rejected an amendment offered by Mr. Coburn requiring workers to resign when they reach retirement age, which he said would help reduce the Postal Service’s bloated workforce. An attempt by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to establish a separate commission to preside over the changes went up in smoke.

Mr. Lieberman said the McCain amendment was unnecessary because the law already lays out a framework for reform.

“In this bill, we have constructed what I think is a clear and fair system of making exactly those decisions,” he said. “If this bill is enacted, there are post offices that will be closed — that simply has to happen — but it will happen according to a system of due process that gives more heed to the fiscal crisis of the Postal Service.”

Senators expect to finish working on the bill Wednesday.

In a late vote Tuesday, they turned back, by a 64-35 vote, an effort by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, to end the Postal Service’s monopoly on mailboxes. Under current law, only a letter carrier can place items in the mailbox.

Mr. Paul said a child putting a birthday invitation in a neighbor’s mailbox could net a $5,000 fine.

But Ms. Collins said ending the mailbox monopoly would open the post office to competition in urban areas while raising costs for delivery in rural areas.

“Continuation of the mailbox monopoly,” she said, “is necessary to preserve the safety, the security, the privacy of mail.”

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