Senators press new postmaster general on troubled rural mail service

Lisa Rein

by Washington Post

Slow mail delivery and poor service are hitting rural America hard, and the U.S. Postal Service needs to pay attention, a bipartisan group of senators from rural states told Postmaster General Megan Brennan this week.

Three months into her new role as leader of the financially struggling mail agency, Brennan heard a long list of service complaints from senators from Vermont to North Dakota. They can be summed up this way: The mail is late, and it’s getting later.

“You mail a letter in Helena,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who attended Tuesday’s meeting, “and it really has to go 90 miles out of the way to get to a destination a few blocks away. It gets to be a death spiral.”

“One of the things the postmaster general needs to understand,” Tester said, “is that when we go home and people are complaining about the Postal Service, it indicates there is dysfunction there.”

Tuesday’s hour-long meeting, organized by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) was also attended by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Gary Peters (D-Minn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)

In January, the Postal Service eliminated overnight delivery for local first-class letters that used to arrive the next day. Anywhere from 20 percent to half of the rest of the first-class mail sent every day now takes an extra day of delivery time. The changes capped three years of gradually declining service standards, as the volume of mail has contracted.

The agency has cut service to save money, reducing hours at local post offices and closing mail processing plants.

That’s where delivery times have suffered, lawmakers and postal unions agree, because the mail, especially in rural areas, has to travel extra miles to get to a plant as consolidations have moved forward.

In Montana, for example, the Postal Service has closed four of the state’s seven processing plants. Tester said a lot of first-class mail, from check deposits that his constituents prefer to make by mail over electronic deposits to lease agreements and bills, are sometimes taking a week to arrive, and that’s just in-state.
Heitkamp said many constituents in rural areas rely on the mail more than those who live in cities: For prescription drugs, for example.

“The post office is more critical in rural areas,” Heitkamp said. “You can’t take the mail 200 miles in the wrong direction and expect that it’s going to arrive on time.”

Support from rural-state lawmakers will be crucial to any effort to pass legislation in this Congress to stabilize postal finances, which have suffered as first-class mail – for decades the Postal Service’s largest revenue source – has plummeted with Americans’ use of the Internet. The House and Senate committees that oversee postal issues have tried unsuccessfully in two Congresses to move a bill. The issue has gotten little traction in the current Congress.

Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said in a statement, “We appreciate the opportunity to work with the Senator and her colleagues to discuss our commitment to provide quality service to all customers including our rural customers and to ensure we meet that commitment.”

Heitkamp described the meeting with Brennan as “an introductory meeting to say, ‘we appreciate that Congress hasn’t necessarily done its job in terms of providing leadership and guidance to the Postal Service, but rural America matters.”

The senators pressed Brennan to better document the money the agency says it is saving by closing processing plants, claiming that the savings have so far come in less than postal officials estimated. They also reiterated their request to Brennan to slow the closure of 82 plants scheduled to shut their doors this year.