Senators discuss tribe and post office

Great Falls Tribune

by David Murray

Jon Tester on Tuesday made his first stop in Great Falls since assuming the mantle as Montana’s senior U.S. senator, while John Walsh also made his first visit to the Electric City since his inauguration to replace retiring Sen. Max Baucus.

While the two men’s political roles may have changed recently, they came to confer on topics that have been primary political concerns in Montana for several years.

The first item on Tester’s and Walsh’s agenda Tuesday was to visit with U.S. Postal Workers Union leaders and discuss efforts to reform the nation’s mail carrier and halt the closure or reduction of services at additional rural post offices.

“Some people want to privatize the post office – there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Tester told Montana Postal Workers Union President Gary Phillippe. “They want to do away with it completely. A lot of those folks are the same folks who talk about how important the Constitution is. The last time I checked the post office was in the Constitution.”

Tester currently sits on the congressional committee that oversees Postal Service operations and has been a vocal critic of the service’s handling of rural mail for several years.

In 2011, the Postal Service unveiled a plan to eliminate 3,700 rural post offices and 140 mail processing centers nationwide. U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the move was necessary to close the $14 billion in net losses the Postal Service was experiencing annually.

The proposal sparked widespread criticism from congressional representatives such as Tester, who blasted the plan as “a smallminded fix to a large-scale problem.”

Donahoe has generally attributed the Postal Service’s fiscal problems to a 60 percent reduction in single- piece, first class mail posted over the past decade. Critics argue that much of the Postal Service’s financial problems can be traced back to a federal requirement that the Postal Service prepay employee retirement benefits many years in advance.

Donahoe eventually backed away from the closures, but moved ahead with significant reductions in the hours of operation and staffing at post offices across the country. At the time, rural customers were assured that they would see no significant decline in their standard of service.

On Feb. 14, Tester submitted a letter to Donahoe that he described as a “valentine.”

In it, Tester described several recent instances where mail service in Montana had deteriorated. In one case, a ranch manager allegedly sent time-sensitive, lease renewal documents via USPS certified overnight mail, only to have then arrive at their destination eight days later.

“This kind of service is a slap in the face to Montanans who should be able to rely on the universal service standard championed by USPS,” Tester wrote.

Tester recently voted against a Senate committee version of a Postal Reform Act, which would restructure some debts, drop Saturday mail service and cut retirement and disability benefits for postal workers. Tester was the only member of the 10-member Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to oppose bringing the bill for consideration by the full Senate.

“There’s not a postal worker anywhere that I communicate with that doesn’t know you, and doesn’t know you’re from the state of Montana,” Phillippe told Tester.

“That bill was written by somebody who doesn’t know what life’s like in rural America,” the senator responded. “The bottom line is we’ve got to have a bill that works – not one that does not.”

Sens. reassert support for Little Shell Tribe

The first bill Jon Tester sponsored as a freshman senator was for federal recognition of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe. On Tuesday, Tester reasserted his support for that effort, saying that federal recognition for the landless tribe was closer than ever before – even if it takes a few more years.

“You’ve been at it a long time,” Tester told members of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribal Council. “Don’t get discouraged, especially not now. Just keep pushing.”

Tuesday’s visit with the Little Shell was the first stop on a five-day swing through Montana that Tester is making to visit all the state’s tribes. Last week Tester was appointed chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee – a committee he has served on for seven years.

The Little Shell people have been seeking federal recognition as a tribe for nearly a century. They obtained state recognition in Montana in 2003, but in 2009 the Bureau of Indian Affairsissued a final determination ruling against federal recognition.

The Little Shell took the matter to the Interior Board of Indian Affairs, and though the board said it lacked jurisdiction to force the BIA to reverse its ruling, it referred the matter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Last September, Jewell asked the BIA to take another look at federal recognition for the Little Shell.

“The administration is going to come out with the rules,” Tester said. “They’re going to be in discussion for 18 months to two years, and then you may or may not be eligible after those rules get written. I think we’ve got to push the administration to tighten up those timelines.”

Walsh also expressed his support for legislation moving toward federal recognition.

“I will sign on as a cosponsor or supporter of the bill, and do whatever I can. One of my first actions will be to write a letter to the secretary of the Interior encouraging him to speed this process up. You can count on me to be a supporter of yours in Washington D.C., I guarantee it.”

“I think there’s more hope now then there has been,” he said. “I really, really believe that.”