The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A sweeping overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service designed to shore up the popular but embattled agency’s financial future and cement six-day-a-week mail delivery was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
The legislation was approved by Congress last month after a dozen years of discussions that have taken on a new sense of urgency amid widespread complaints about postal service delays. Officials had repeatedly warned that without congressional action, the Postal Service would run out of money by 2024.
“The Postal Service is at the heart of our economy and essential to rural America”, Biden said. He added that postmen and women deliver 4 million prescriptions a day, along with letters, consumer goods and even live animals, “often in parts of the country that private carriers cannot or will not or are not required to reach.”
The final legislation won rare, bipartisan support by scrapping some of the more controversial proposals and settling on key ways to save the service. Mail delivery is one of the most popular things about government, with 91% of Americans having a favorable opinion of the Postal Service, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in 2020.
The signing of the bill came the same day the Postal Service announced plans to raise rates beginning July 10. According to the proposal submitted to the Postal Regulatory Commission, the cost of a first-class Forever stamp would increase from 2 cents to 60 cents.
The Postal Service said the increase, which is lower than the annual inflation rate, will help the agency implement Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s 10-year plan to stabilize the agency’s finances.
Lawmakers from both parties attended the signing ceremony and the mood was jovial, a big improvement from Republican Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who previously said the service was in a “death spiral” it was especially difficult for rural Americans.
The Postal Service Reform Act lifts budget requirements that have contributed to the agency’s red ink and specifies that mail must be delivered six days a week, excluding federal holidays, natural disasters and certain other situations. .
Postage sales and other services were supposed to sustain the Postal Service, but it suffered 14 straight years of losses. Rising costs for worker compensation and benefits, along with steadily declining mail volumes, have exacerbated the losses, even as the service serves 1 million additional locations each year.
The new law ends the requirement for the Postal Service to fund workers’ health care benefits in advance for the next 75 years — an obligation that private companies and federal agencies do not face. Biden said that rule had “stretched the Postal Service’s finances almost to the breaking point.”
Now, future retirees will enroll in Medicare, while other health plans and the Postal Service only cover actual health care costs for current retirees not covered by the federal health insurance program for seniors.
“In recent years, we have seen how unfair policies have forced this valuable institution to cut costs and delay the delivery of medicines, financial documents and other critical mail,” Michigan Democratic Senator Gary Peters, who helped draft the legislation, said in a statement. “These long-awaited reforms will undo these onerous financial requirements.”
To measure the agency’s progress in improving its service, the law requires it to set up an online dashboard that would be searchable by zip code to show how long it takes to deliver letters and the parcels.
As current legislation approaches, efforts to reduce mail delivery have been dropped from the package. Also set aside – for now – other proposals that have been floated over the years to change operations, including to privatize some services.
Criticism of the Postal Service peaked in 2020, amid the COVID-19 crisis and ahead of the presidential election, as cuts delayed service at a time when millions of Americans relied on ballots postal voting during the pandemic. Then-President Donald Trump admitted he was trying to pinch the service financially to limit its processing capacity for an expected surge in mail-in ballots, which he says could cost him the election which he eventually lost.
Dominated by Trump appointees, the agency’s board of governors had tapped DeJoy, a top GOP donor, as postmaster general. He offered a 10-year plan to stabilize the department’s finances with measures such as further mail slowdowns, reductions in certain office hours and possibly higher rates.
Biden said Wednesday that more needs to be done to reform the Postal Service, including investing in a fleet of electrified vehicles that could save money while helping fight climate change. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is reviewing a Postal Service contract to replace its huge fleet of mail delivery trucks with a mix of gasoline and electric vehicles, which the Environmental Protection Agency says and Democratic lawmakers, have too few electric vehicles.
“Today we enshrine in law our recognition that the postal service is fundamental to our economy, to our democracy, to our health and to the very sense of who we are as a nation,” Biden said.