Preservationists oppose change to USPS NEPA regulations on property disposal

February 14, 2014

A coalition of historic preservationists and citizen groups has filed comments opposing a change in the Postal Service's NEPA regulations that would make it easier to dispose of historic post offices.  The coalition includes the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Post Office Collaborate, the La Jolla Historical Society, the California Preservation Foundation, the Los Angeles Conservancy, and the City of Berkeley.  The coalition's letter to the Postal Service is here.

The letter comes in response to the Interim Final Rule that the Postal Service published in the Federal Register on January 13.  The rule change concerns a revision of 39 CFR Part 775, the section of the federal regulations that deals with procedures for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

The rule change expands the scope of the Categorical Exclusion (CATEX) in a way that makes it less likely the Postal Service would need to a full Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement when it disposes of its properties.  The aim of the change is to make it easier to sell post offices.  The Postal Service would not need to worry about hiring consultants to do an environmental review, providing opportunity for a lot of public participation, sharing the administrative record with the public, and following similar requirements that could slow down the sale or prevent it altogether. 

By publishing an “interim final rule” rather than simply an "interim rule," the Postal Service has already skipped a step where the public could have commented on the rule change before it was implemented.  Instead, the Postal Service made the effective date of the rule change the same day that it published the notice in the Federal Register.  The notice invites comments, but it's not likely they'll do any good.  The Postal Service says it will review any adverse comments it receives and then publish a final rule with its responses to the comments and any modifications it finds necessary.

The Postal Service apparently believed it was appropriate to implement the rule change before receiving comments because, as it states in the interim final rule, it does not believe the proposed revision “should be significant or controversial.” 

But nothing could be further from the truth: The proposed change is extremely significant and controversial, as laid out in the coalition's letter.  It begins as follows:

We are troubled by the abrupt notice of the change as we believe that retaining the current categorical exclusion (CATEX) in the Procedures is more consistent with NEPA’s goal to “prevent or eliminate damage to the environment.” Further, we strongly disagree with the assumption that this update should not be “significant or controversial.” The revised rule will result in less public scrutiny of consequential decisions to sell the Nation’s historic assets at a time of heightened public interest and should be rejected.

The letter goes on to identify several specific issues.

Premature motion: PRC dismisses bid to view non-public Amazon docs

February 13, 2014


Almost three months ago, I filed a request with the Postal Regulatory Commission seeking access to documents filed under seal in the docket that dealt with the Postal Service’s deal with Amazon to deliver its parcels on Sundays.  Last week, the PRC finally responded to the request. 

The Commission ruled that my motion was “dismissed without prejudice” as being “premature,” meaning I could resubmit the request again when the time was ripe — sometime next year.  I was also advised to confer with the Postal Service and Amazon "in an effort to resolve the request for access in a mutually agreeable fashion."  The Postal Service and Amazon had both filed briefs vehemently opposing my request, but somehow we were supposed to confer together and thereby "resolve the dispute without court action."  

This seems like a strange way to respond to a request for access to non-public documents, and the whole story illustrates the disturbing lack of transparency in how the Postal Service conducts its business — and with PRC approval to boot. 

The Senate puts the PRC in the backseat — or maybe not even in the car

February 9, 2014


On Thursday of this past week, the Senate held the second of two markup sessions on the postal reform bill, a.k.a. the manager’s or substitute amendment, submitted by Senators Carper and Coburn.  At the first session held the previous week, on January 29, a controversy arose over Section 301 of the proposed bill, which deals with postal rates and the role of the Postal Regulatory Commission.  The controversy resumed on Thursday.  

As originally proposed in the manager’s amendment, Section 301 does several things.  First, it takes the exigent rate increase that the PRC approved on a temporary basis and makes it the new base line.  The bill thus essentially overturns the PRC’s ruling in December and makes the 4.3 percent increase permanent, rather than limiting it to the time frame required to bring in $2.8 billion in profit (about 18 months to two years).

Section 301 also raises the current limit on annual rate increases from the CPI to the CPI plus one percent.  That would all but guarantee higher annual rate increases over the next few years.

In addition to dealing with these two specific rate matters, Section 301 transfers much of the responsibility for setting postal rates in the future from the PRC to the Postal Board of Governors.  The PRC’s role would be reduced to reviewing the BOG’s decision after the fact, rather than approving increases before they’re implemented. 

Finally, Section 301 gives the BOG the primary role in a 2017 rewrite of the ratemaking system.  The PRC can have some input and it will be able to veto the revision, but that's about all.

As Senator Carper explained at Thursday's markup, he and Senator Coburn decided to give the PRC "a very minimal role in terms of actually deciding what that new rate structure would look like" in the 2017 rewrite.  "We really put the Postal Service in the driver’s seat.  I don’t even know if the PRC was in the car, but certainly the Postal Service was in the driver’s seat.”  (video at 2:03:40)

Can it get much worse? The Senate tries postal reform, again

February 3, 2014


The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs finally took up its postal reform bill at a markup session on Wednesday, January 29.  The new S.1486 the committee took up is significantly different from the Carper-Coburn bill released last August.  The current version, aka the substitute bill or the managers’ amendment, has introduced changes to the rate system, regulatory oversight, and facility closings that are worth close scrutiny.

The leadership of the Postal Service has expressed satisfaction with the new substitute bill.  No wonder.  It reads like the fulfillment of PMG Donahoe’s and the Board of Governor’s wish list.  It grants them new powers over ratemaking, adds language regarding contract negotiations favorable to management, and creates a separate postal employee health plan within the current Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP).  The bill also addresses the retiree health benefit prefunding, while adding a new prefunding requirement for workman’s compensation.

Whatever its final form, the postal reform bill that comes out of the Senate will represent the next step in a process that has been going on since the Postal Service was created in 1971.  For the last forty years the leadership of the Postal Service has pursued a course that treats the postal network in terms of a corporate business model that simply provides a delivery service.  Postal leaders do not seem much interested in the view of the postal system as basic national infrastructure that connects American homes and businesses with each other and with their government.  They do not seem very committed to a broad vision of the universal service obligation.  They do not seem to understand what our Founders grasped so clearly — the important role of the postal network as a fundamental element of democracy, furthering access to information and creating connections in a way that bound the nation together.  

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On Privatization

Good Reading on Postal Privatization

Also: Sarah Ryan's "Understanding Postal Privatization: Corporations, Unions, and the "Public Interest"

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Organizing to Save Rural Post Offices

A Community Organizing Toolkit

Revised November 2012

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