Postal workers rally outside Herrera Beutler’s office

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About 60 postal workers from across Southwest Washington rallied outside the Vancouver office of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler Tuesday to urge the congresswoman’s support for a bill that would rescue the U.S. Postal Service from crippling budget cuts.

The service faces a multibillion-dollar shortfall due to the recession, rising use of the Internet and a 2006 law requiring it to prepay 75 years’ worth of retiree health benefits over a 10-year period.

Congress is considering ending Saturday mail delivery, eliminating hundreds of mail processing centers and closing thousands of local post offices to balance the service’s budget.

No post offices in Clark County are on the list being studied for closure.

The Postal Service already has eliminated 200,000 jobs in a workforce of 700,000 over the past four years. Union leaders fear that further slashing service will drive businesses and customers to private shipping companies, costing the service even more in lost revenue.

The Postal Service has received no tax revenue since the early 1980s; all its revenue comes from the sale of postal products and services.

“No matter where you are, you can pay 44 cents and send your letter, and we will deliver it,” said Mary Martinez of the American Postal Workers Union.

Monte Hartshorn, a member of the Rural Letter Carriers Association, delivers mail in the Castle Rock area. He said rural residents, including many veterans, depend heavily on the Postal Service.

“The more the Postal Service is hurt, the more rural universal service is in jeopardy,” he said. “I have people I deliver medicine to. How are you going to get your medicine by email?”

435 rallies

The four unions representing postal workers held rallies in every one of the nation’s 435 congressional districts on Tuesday to show support for House Resolution 1351. The measure would allow the Postal Service to transfer most of a $6.9 billion surplus in one pension fund into other funds to meet current obligations. Separate legislation would be required to repeal the prefunding language in the 2006 law.

Unions say the measure “takes the necessary first steps toward ensuring a financially sound future for the U.S. Postal Service.”

“If HR 1351 passes, there will be no need to close any more post offices,” said Mike Blazey of the National Association of Letter Carriers. “We can still provide the proper service six days a week to every American household.”

Congress pushed for the pre-funding mandate in the 2006 postal reform bill to make it appear revenue-neutral, union officials said. No other federal agency or private company is forced to prefund similar benefits.

The mandate costs the Postal Service an estimated $5.5 billion per year and accounts for all of the agency’s $20 billion in losses over the past four years. Without it, the Postal Service would still be profitable and would have enough borrowing authority to ride out the recession, union leaders said.

Postal workers aren’t asking for a taxpayer bailout, said Kathy Cummings, spokeswoman for the Washington State Labor Council. All they want is the right to use their surplus pension funds to pay down their obligation, and that requires an act of Congress.

The bill needs 218 co-sponsors to move it to the floor of the House without a committee vote this year, Blazey said. As of Tuesday afternoon, the bill had 216 co-sponsors.

“They’re talking about eliminating 120,000 jobs,” Blazey said. “All of that is unnecessary if this bill passes.”

Herrera Beutler, who was in Olympia on Tuesday, has not signed on as a co-sponsor. Her spokesman, Casey Bowman, said she is reviewing the bill. “She believes the postal workers make a good point, and she’s studying the issue to understand the bill’s impact,” he said. “The timing of this bill and whether it will be considered on the floor is still unknown.”

Bowman said Herrera Beutler is co-sponsoring a separate bill, House Resolution 137, which would preserve Saturday mail delivery.

“Jaime supports modernizing and cutting costs at the Postal Service to make sure it remains financially viable, but she also believes we need to be very careful about preserving rural mail delivery and is concerned about the effects of closing rural post offices,” Bowman said. “The Postal Service still needs to be able to perform its core mission, and rural post offices are a part of that mission.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.