Postal politics gets ugly: The Post attacks the PRC Chair


There’s a lot at stake in the battle over postal reform — billions of dollars of corporate profits, the power of unions, the very existence of post offices — so one can’t be surprised that the politics got a little rough this week.  The Washington Post has just run a piece attacking Ruth Goldway, Chairman of the Postal Regulator Commission, accusing her of spending too much time and money on travel.  The hatchet job by Ed O’Keefe makes a mountain out of a molehill, and one has to wonder why it was ever written or published — and who was really behind it.

The slant of the article is clear right in the title: “Postal regulatory chairman’s $70,000 in travel comes under scrutiny.”  That makes it sound like someone else is scrutinizing Goldway and O’Keefe is just reporting on it, but as it turns out, he’s the one who has initiated the whole thing.

“Days before the U.S. Postal Service announced record-setting losses in September,” the article begins, “the nation’s top postal regulator traveled to Scotland for meetings with European envelope manufacturers.”

O’Keefe would have us visualize the PRC’s chairman out gallivanting around Europe, insensitive to or unaware of the fact that the Postal Service was losing billions.  She should have been in her office doing her job regulating the Postal Service, suggests O’Keefe, instead of worrying about European envelopes.

The article, along with an accompanying interview with Chairman Goldway, paints a picture of a government official globetrotting on the taxpayer’s dime, someone who’s out of the office more than in it.  0’Keefe even had someone count up all the days Goldway was on the road, and he lists her destinations as if she were doing “Around the World in 80 Days.”

O’Keefe is making a big deal out of nothing.  There’s nothing unusual about Goldway’s travel expenses.  O’Keefe says Goldway has spent $70,000 since she became the PRC chair in August 2009 (after serving as a Commissioner since 1998).  That’s two and a half years ago, so it comes to about $28,000 a year.

That may seem like a lot to us average Americans, but for a senior government official with national and international responsibilities, it’s not very much.  As O’Keefe’s own investigation revealed, Goldway’s predecessor as chair of the PRC, Dan Blair, spent $58,788 on travel during his two-and-a-half-year tenure — about $23,500 a year, just a few thousand less than Goldway — and there was a lot less going on in postal world back then.

Goldway’s travel expenses are also in the same ballpark as other high-ranking officials in the postal system.  According to an OIG audit, the nine members of the USPS Board of Governors incurred $163,000 in travel and miscellaneous expenses in fiscal year 2011.  The report doesn’t break it down per person or separate travel from miscellaneous expenses, but if that $163,000 includes the Postmaster General and the Deputy PMG, it comes to over $18,000 per Board member, and if it doesn’t include them, the remaining seven Board members averaged over $23,000 per person in travel and miscellaneous expenses.

Another OIG audit on “Officers’ Travel and Representation Expenses for Fiscal Year 2011” says that the travel and representation expenses for USPS officers totaled about $700,000.  The USPS website has a page of “officers” that lists some 35 of them.  That would come to about $20,000 per officer.

Those USPS executives, by the way, earn a very nice salary, too.  While the Postal Service was wracking up its huge deficit in 2010, the top 38 USPS officials earned more than cabinet secretaries.  (The Post has been silent on that story.)

The Postmaster General likes to get around himself.  In December, for example, just a few days after the Postal Service had announced plans to close half the country’s processing plants, put 35,000 postal employees out of work, and slow down first-class mail by a day or more, the Postmaster General was off for the COP17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa, where, according to a USPS press release, he “heralded the U.S. Postal Service’s sustainability successes, making the business case to go green.”  (The irony of the PMG discussing the environment is explored in this article.)

Not only are Goldway’s travel expenses comparable to those of her predecessor and other postal executives, the PRC’s travel budget, as Goldway told the Post, represents just one percent of the agency’s total budget.

Another disturbing thing about the Post article is the way O’Keefe solicited reaction to his big scoop.  Whom did he call for a quote?  Darrell Issa and Thomas Carper.

Issa is identified in the article as a congressman who “tracks postal issues.”  No mention of the fact that Issa is spearheading legislation in the House that would dismantle the Postal Service by creating a commission to close post offices and plants and basically make the PRC irrelevant.  He’s quoted as saying that Goldway’s travel schedule was troubling.  “When organizations are struggling,” said Issa, “good leaders often make a pointed effort of curbing their own expenses as an example.”

That’s rich.  According to the Watchdog Institute, Issa’s staff has close ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, whose Cato institute advocates postal privatization, and Issa has received generous campaign contributions from the brothers as well.  Issa is also the subject of an ethics complaint issued by American Family Voices with the Office of Congressional Ethics, alleging that he has repeatedly used his public office for personal financial gain.  (See Wikipedia for more.)

The Post might have asked Issa — the richest man in Congress — how he’s  been curbing his own expenses these days.  Back in 2006, issa was described as “the best-traveled member of San Diego County’s congressional delegation.”  Issa ranked 24th among all House members on a list of taxpayer-paid travel.  

As for Carper, he said only that he would inquire further into the matter, but his spokeswoman couldn’t leave it at that and told O’Keefe, “A significant increase in the amount of travel by the commission chair — or any member of the commission — raises legitimate questions.  This is a time when the leadership of the Congress, the Postal Service and the Commission should be focused like a laser on the Postal Service’s financial problems.”

Carper may have his own reasons for failing to utter a supportive word about Goldway.  He favors eliminating Saturday delivery, and he helped write the PAEA, which is causing much of the postal deficit crisis by mandating the $5.6 billion in payments to the retiree health care plan.  In any case, his spokesperson was way off base.  It’s Congress that has dropped the ball on dealing with the mess and let things develop into a full-blown crisis.  Goldway and her fellow Commissioners have been totally focused on the Postal Service’s financial problems.

The Commissioners and the PRC staff have all been working overtime dealing with everything that’s been thrown at them as a result of the Postal Service’s radical downsizing plans.  Since 2009, the PRC has done three Advisory Opinions, each requiring months of work — one on eliminating Saturday delivery and two on post office closings — and it’s working on a fourth right now, on the plant consolidation plan.  There’s also been the request for an exigent rate increase, compliance reports, and over 200 appeals on post office closings.  (Nothing about any of that in the Post article.)

Much of what the PRC does is strictly advisory, and it doesn’t have a lot of power, but the Commission does make what goes on in the Postal Service more transparent to the public, and that makes the Postal Service more accountable for its actions.  Just a few days ago, for example, Goldway had the Postal Service turn over lists of post offices that had closed and been suspended — something postal headquarters has been reluctant to do.  The PRC’s Advisory Opinions have also challenged the way the Postal Service calculates how much money will be saved by going to five-day delivery and closing post offices.

The PRC also ensures that there’s due process when it comes to things like the plant consolidation plan.  Last week, for example, the PRC turned down the Postal Service’s request to accelerate the procedural schedule on the Advisory Opinion because putting things on a fast track would endanger due process.  Not that the Postal Service is very worried about that minor matter.  It can’t wait to get started closing plants and putting thousands of employees out of work, even though for some unknown reason it postponed submitting the Request for an Opinion from October to December.

Goldway has also challenged the Postal Service on numerous appeals over post office closings.  Since the moratorium began in December, she, along with fellow Commissioner Nanci Langley, has repeatedly voted to remand the final determination to close offices back to the Postal Service for further consideration because of flaws in the cases and because it’s unfair to close some post offices while others benefit from the moratorium

Holding the Postal Service accountable in these ways is not making Goldway a lot of friends in postal headquarters, which is really as it should be — a regulatory body should be tough on the agencies and businesses it’s regulating.  That’s what regulation is all about.

Apparently, however, there are people who want to marginalize Goldway by putting her on the defensive.  Yesterday’s Washington Post article has already generated more noise than it merits, which could distract attention from the serious criticisms the PRC has been making of the Postal Service.  One can’t help but wonder if the whole thing wasn’t orchestrated from within L’Enfant Plaza.  It’s not likely Ed O’Keefe came up with the idea himself.

O’Keefe has been covering the Postal Service for quite a while now, and he puts out an article on postal matters every week or two for his Federal Eye column.  He knows the players and apparently has easy access — there’s always a quote from the Postmaster General, a high-ranking postal executive, or a member of Congress.

His articles are usually very brief — about 500 words — and they’re not what you’d call hard-hitting investigative journalism. They mostly tell us what a USPS press release will say a few days later.  O’Keefe rarely has a negative word about the Postal Service, and he shows little inclination to question what he’s been told.

For some reason, though, O’Keefe decided it was time to get tough and do a big exposé.  He put his all into this one.  He wrote over 1100 words for the article, and he also did a lengthy interview with Goldway, another 1400 words — a total of 2500 words, about five times his average.

Apparently O’Keefe even took the trouble to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get hold of PRC travel records.  Actually, the article doesn’t say who submitted the request, so it’s not clear if the Washington Post filed the paperwork of if someone else just turned over the documents to O’Keefe.

All that research, however, failed to explore the main reason Goldway does a lot of traveling — it’s part of her job.  The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) specifically requires the PRC to play a role in international postal affairs.

The PRC website has a whole section on International Postal Regulation, which provides details about how the Commission has been fulfilling this legal obligation.  There are reports and studies about foreign postal systems, a list of regulatory agencies in foreign countries, and a calendar of international events that the PRC plays a part in.

The Commission works with the Department of State on issues like international agreements on postal rates and classifications, the formulation of international postal policy, and promoting U.S. interests in international organizations like the Universal Postal Union.  The Commission “also fosters direct engagement with other postal regulators in order to share valuable information, experiences and best practices.”

Commissioners and members of the PRC staff travel abroad on a regular basis to participate in conferences and other events, and to share information with their foreign counterparts.  They report back on these events at the meetings of the PRC, and as anyone who has listened to the webcasts of these meetings knows, the international perspective is a very important part of what the PRC does.

Overall, then, there’s really nothing to O’Keefe’s revelations. Goldway has international obligations as Chairman of the PRC, and her travel budget is relatively frugal and not out of line with those of other postal executives.

The real story here is not Goldway’s travels, but the fact that the Washington Post would choose to run a hit piece like this.

The Post’s editorial staff has made no secret of its position on postal reform, and it doesn’t exactly coincide with Goldway’s.  In July, the Post expressed its views in an editorial about Issa’s Postal Reform Act. “The only bill before Congress that offers any opportunity to fix” the postal deficit, wrote the Post, “is the Ross-Issa Postal Reform Act of 2011.”

The editorial dismisses the fact that there’s a $50 billion surplus in the retirement fund, calling it “a cache that has given those unwilling to change the status quo an argument for postponing critical structural reforms.”  The Post supports continuation of the unnecessary onerous prepayments to the retiree health fund, and it endorses Issa’s plan to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements.

The editorial concludes as follows: “In the long run, the best solution for the Postal Service would be one that cuts it loose of the cumbersome oversight structure that prevents it from efficiently downsizing or competing, allows it to negotiate more sensible contracts and behave more like a private-sector business, and rethinks its universal service obligation for a century where people no longer rely on the mail to pay bills or send messages.”

That’s a not-so-veiled attack on the PRC itself, the regulatory agency that’s the lynchpin of the “oversight structure.”  According to the Washington Post, the PRC is just “cumbersome” and holding the Postal Service back from downsizing away its post offices and processing plants, gutting union contracts, getting rid of universal service, acting like a private-sector business, and moving further down the path to privatization.

One final footnote on the story, just to give you an idea where things may be headed.  In a article just out in The Federal Times, Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, has already weighed in to say he thinks the PRC’s inspector general, Jack Callender, should pursue an inquiry into Goldway’s travel expenses.  Del Polito, whose association represents business mailers like JPMorgan Chase and Capital One, favors a BRAC-like commission to close post offices and processing plants, and he has attacked the PRC because it wants to bring postal rates into compliance so that some types of mail don’t cost more to deliver than they bring in as revenue — which will mean rate increases for the corporations Del Polito represents.

It’s too bad that postal politics have taken this ugly turn, but as Katherine Hepburn once said, “Enemies are so stimulating.”

(Image credits: Goldway in China addressing the Third Annual Symposium on Express Delivery and Postal Reform; Jack in The Shining)