Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Bipartisan postal-reform bill includes provision to let papers send many more sample copies in their home counties

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and U.S. Rep. James
Comer, R-Ky. (Photo from Government Executive)
After a decade or so of fits and starts, Congress may be ready to pass a postal-reform bill, and a bipartisan measure introduced by key committee leaders has a provision that would help rural newspapers.

A three-line section of the bill, labeled "Rural newspaper sustainability," would let papers mail many more sample copies to non-subscribers in their home counties at the same rate they pay the Postal Service to deliver papers to subscribers. The current limit is 10 percent of annual home-county circulation; the bill would make it 50%.

The 10% limit has been in federal law "for more than a century," said the National Newspaper Association, which lobbied for the change as part of a broader reform of the Postal Service. NNA Chair Brett Wesner, an Oklahoma publisher, said the provision would help small newspapers recruit subscribers.

As newspaper circulation has declined, papers reach the sample-copy limit sooner, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, which publishes The Rural Blog. He said the higher limit would make papers more attractive vehicles for advertising and public service, as some have done with sample-copy editions in the pandemic.

NNA said it was "cautiously optimistic that the Postal Service Reform Act of 2021 would finally clear the many hurdles to enactment." It thanked the sponsors "for recognizing the need of community newspapers to regain subscribers lost to poor postal service and the effects of the pandemic."

The bill is sponsored by the leaders of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has postal issues in its jurisdiction. The chair is Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York; the ranking Republican is Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, who pushed for the sample-copy provision. Comer said the bill, combined with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's 10-year plan, 'will help put USPS on the road to fiscal stability, make it more efficient and sustainable for generations, and ensure continued service to the American people."

UPDATE, May 13: The committee approved the bill without amendments, then moved on to a related bill with more contentious issues such as mailed ballots. Comer told the panel, "In this bill, Republicans have ensured rural Americans continue to have access to their local newspapers and not be forced to pick up a national paper because the local paper went bankrupt." The committee is scheduled to mark up the bill Thursday, a session that may reveal dissension in both parties over issues that have long been contentious. The bill is co-sponsored by Government Operations Committee Chair Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.).

The bill would continue the mandate for six-day delivery, a major concern in rural areas. It would require the Postal Service to have an online, publicly available dashboard to track its performance. Maloney said that adds "transparency to ensure the Postal Service provides the high quality of service Americans expect and deserve." NNA had hoped for specific measurement of on-time rural mail delivery, but it said the dashboard would allow "any person could look up a specific address to determine service performance to that address," so research could measure rural delivery times. 

The bill's major financial boost to the Postal Service would be elimination of the "2006 mandate to fund retiree health benefits well into the future, a significant cost for USPS, at least on paper. The agency has defaulted on billions of dollars in annual payments to the retiree health fund," Jory Heckman of Federal News Network reports. "The legislation would require postal employees to enroll in Medicare when they turn 65. The bill wouldn’t require current retirees to enroll, but would give them a three-month grace period from late-enrollment penalties if they opt to do so."

UPDATE: NNA issued a news release in which Wessner said, "“This bill does not give us everything we want, nor one thing we really need, which is some assurance of postage rate stability,” Wesner said. “But it does open the door for much-needed postal reform and it sets us on a path for refinements as a bill moves through Congress. What is most important to us is that Congress acts and acts quickly to shore up universal service. The very real effects of the delays on Capitol Hill are being felt in our business, as we lose subscribers to poor service and we are forced to recognize that the mail system has become much less dependable than in the past. To the extent this deterioration is because of USPS’s financial weakness, it is incumbent upon Congress to get moving to help fix it.”

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