Senator Susan Collins visited workers at the U.S. Postal Service's Eastern Maine Processing and Distribution Center in Hampden in this May file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Welcome to Ad Watch, in which the BDN breaks down who is behind the political ads you’re seeing and whether what they are saying is true.

A new ad from a Democratic super PAC blames U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for pushing the Postal Service “to the brink,” but it misleads by highlighting her 2006 bill that only partially accounts for the agency’s dire financial situation and was widely supported at the time.

The ad: “Can’t Afford to Fail” by Senate Majority PAC

Who is behind it

Senate Majority PAC is affiliated with Democratic leaders including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who co-sponsored the bill in question. It has spent nearly $32 million to boost Democratic U.S. Senate candidates this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes $5 million in the Maine Senate race between the Republican incumbent, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and independents Max Linn and Lisa Savage. 

As a super PAC, Senate Majority PAC can take unlimited funding from a variety of sources. It has also received millions of dollars through an affiliated dark-money group, Majority Forward, which is difficult to trace. We have fact-checked one of the group’s ads before, finding that it misled on the immediate impact of the 2017 Republican tax-cut bill backed by Collins.

The major claims, with context

On Tuesday, newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said he would put new cost-cutting measures on hold amid reports of mail delays across the country and concerns that they would affect a November election expected to see a massive share of mail-in votes due to the coronavirus pandemic. The changes, which began in July, caused a massive outcry.

“Susan Collins, how could you let this happen?” the ad concludes.

Gideon echoed those attacks on Collins in a Tuesday appearance with a postal workers’ union, according to Maine Public. The ad revolves around the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. A similar attack on the bill earlier this year was deemed half-true by Politifact.

The law passed a Republican-led Congress with no recorded vote in the Senate and only 20 opponents in the House — all Republicans. While Collins co-authored the bill and sponsored it in the Senate, several big-name Democrats co-sponsored it at the time, including Schumer.

The overhaul is best known for a change that forced the Postal Service to pay retiree health and retirement benefits decades in advance, unlike other public entities. It was intended to be offset by other changes, but the recession of 2008 and 2009 hammered the post office and made the law look like an anvil in retrospect.

Since 2007, it helped drive the agency’s debt and unfunded liabilities to $161 billion by 2019, according to a Government Accountability Office report. It sucked billions out of the agency over a few years, but it has defaulted on the payments for nearly a decade. The big reason for the liability growth was $55.4 billion in defaults by last year. It was a huge setback for the agency and the debt continues to hang over it. The money is not being taken out now, however.

There are many more problems. The same report also placed declining mail volumes and increased compensation and benefits costs alongside debt and liability as the major financial problems for the Postal Service. Those two areas drove $78 billion in losses between 2007 and 2019. The volume of profitable First-Class Mail fell 44 percent over 13 years, for example.

The Postal Service floated a plan to cut costs in 2012 by ending Saturday delivery and closing thousands of offices and other facilities, but that got scaled far back amid outcry. Collins intervened to stop the closure of the Hampden processing plant then. She has also been skeptical of DeJoy’s measures and backs $25 billion in pandemic aid to the Postal Service.

Collins also sponsored a bipartisan measure that passed in the Senate in 2012 and would have reduced the pre-funding liability, among other things. The letter carriers’ union sharply criticized it for continuing any such mandate, but the measure was never enacted.

The pre-funding issue was bad for the Postal Service, but the agency’s problems also stem from wider fundamental changes in how Americans use the mail and a large governmental failure to account for them with more aid or cuts. Collins championed the 2006 law, but powerful Democrats were there with her at the time and there is more to her record.

Correction: The 2006 postal bill was subject to a roll-call vote in the House. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...