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Postal Service Default Alarms Sen. Tom Carper

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Tom Carper has criticized the House’s decision not to take up Postal Service legislation before the August recess.

The Postal Service will default this week on a $5.5 billion payment, but most lawmakers appear unconcerned — except for Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has been the lone voice warning about the dangers of Congressional inaction.

That’s because the Postal Service itself is making this an easy issue for Congress to ignore even as it faces a dire financial situation. The service’s website home page has no warnings about post office closings or delayed deliveries. To the contrary, an official statement issued Monday seems to downplay the severity of the problem.

“This action will have no material effect on the operations of the Postal Service. We will fully fund our operations, including our obligation to provide universal postal services to the American people,” the Postal Service said in a statement. “We will continue to deliver the mail, pay our employees and suppliers and meet our other financial obligations. Postal Service retirees and employees will also continue to receive their health benefits.”

In truth, the Postal Service will skip more than $11 billion in mandatory contributions for employee retirement programs between now and Sept. 30 in order to avoid dramatic service cuts. Nearly half of that amount is due to the Treasury on Aug. 1, the remainder at the end of the government’s fiscal year.

Carper tells anyone who cares to listen that the matter is more serious than the Postal Service wants to acknowledge.

“It doesn’t send the kind of signal that you want to send,” the Delaware Democrat said, referring to the default. “Businesses like certainty; they like predictability.”

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has to walk a tightrope for sure. On one hand, he needs to create an incentive for Congress to push through legislation to restore his agency to long-term solvency. On the other hand, he needs to prevent having current customers flee en masse to commercial services such as UPS and FedEx.

As recently as May, the Postal Service planned to shutter 3,700 post offices throughout the country.

Rural Senators decried the move in a deluge of letters and statements, channelling anger of constituents whose local post offices had been targeted for elimination.

Senators asked the Postal Service to delay shuttering post offices until the Senate passed Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman’s (I-Conn.) overhaul bill, which the chamber did in late April.

When it became clear the House would not bring a bill to the floor, the Postal Service went forward with a less aggressive plan that was less likely to drive business away.

Since the Senate bill’s passage, Lieberman has largely left Carper, who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Postal Service, to lead the effort.

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