BANGOR, Maine — Exactly 219 years ago, President George Washington signed a bill into law creating the United States Postal Service.
A crowd of about 70 people, including U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and other politicians, noted that anniversary Monday morning at a rally on behalf of the postal service and the area’s mail processing center.
The Presidents’ Day rally to save the U.S. Postal Service, held near the Bangor post office on Hammond Street, was organized by retired Ellsworth letter carrier John Curtis to urge passage of legislation pending in Congress to help ease financial restrictions on the USPS and avert the downsizing of the Eastern Maine Processing and Distribution Facility in Hampden and further cuts in service to trim $20 billion in operating costs by 2015.
“We don’t want a bailout. We just want to get the mail out,” read a few of the signs hoisted high by rally attendees, many of whom were union members or postal employees.
Another sign read: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stops these carriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds — but prefunding will.”
Prefunding refers to a condition included in a 2006 law passed by Congress requiring the USPS to set aside $5.5 billion each year for a 10-year period to prefund retiree health benefits 75 years ahead of time.
“There is a specter haunting the postal service today and that specter is called prefunding,” said Curtis, who urged passage of HR 1351, a bill being considered by the House of Representatives that would lessen the prefunding requirements.
“It’s a fact that the $21 billion diverted to prefunding so far accounts for 85 percent of the postal service’s debt,” said Curtis. “That is the main problem with the postal service today and it must be fixed now. If not for this burden, the postal service would have been profitable in four of the last five years.”
As the USPS evaluates proposals to save money and cut expenses, the processing and distribution center in Hampden has been targeted by a proposal to shift its processing operations to the state’s only other center, in Scarborough.
Both of Maine’s U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are against curtailing the plant’s operations to distribution only.
Michaud said he would make it a priority to get fellow House members, 228 of whom already have signed on as HR 1351 co-sponsors, to join in signing a “discharge petition” — a parliamentary maneuver that would force the the bill to be brought up for a vote.
“It’s because of an act of Congress that we’re in this mess today,” said Michaud. “Hopefully, an act of Congress can do the right thing and get this bill signed into law.”
But there is a sticking point, as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has authored a competing bill to HR 1351 that would establish a financial control board to overhaul USPS finances.
“The only option Congress has, besides not bringing anything forward, is for us to sign a discharge petition,” said Michaud. “And one would think that with 228 co-sponsors — and all we need is 218 to get a bill passed in Congress — that we would get the signatures for a discharge petition. So we’ll be moving forward in that direction and hopefully, we will be able to and get a vote on that in the House.”
There are also competing bills in the Senate, one of which, S 1789, is co-sponsored by Collins.
Another bill is S 1853, backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.
“Sanders is working with 27 other senators to end the prefunding mandate and retain essential services like door-to-door delivery while also requiring the USPS to modernize and offer new services,” Curtis said.
He said Collins’ bill, the 21st Century Postal Service Act, leaves the prefunding burden largely intact and stipulates drastic reductions in service if the USPS doesn’t quickly show a profit.
A spokesman for Collins said her bill is a bipartisan legislation that aims to save the Postal Service without burdening taxpayers.
“The Postal Service is vital to our economy and society, and it is heading toward insolvency. To maintain that this crisis can be solved simply by eliminating the payments for future retirees’ health benefits is not truthful and is a disservice to hard-working postal employees who should be able to count on their promised benefits when they retire,” said Kevin Kelley, spokesman for Collins.
“In fact, the Postal Service did not make these required payments for the past two years and yet was still in the red by $3 billion and $5 billion, respectively,” Kelley said. “As part of the solution, both Senator Collins and the Obama Administration have proposed that the payment schedule for future benefits be eased, while ensuring that the liability is still eventually funded so that the Postal Service keeps its promises to retirees.”
Jack McKay, president of the Eastern Maine Labor Council, attended the rally, as did members of several labor unions representing postal workers, electrical workers and others.
People identifying themselves from as far away as Lincoln, Waterville, Presque Isle, Portland and even Somerville, Mass., came to show support.