Shades of deception: The PMG testifies to the Senate



The Senate held another hearing on the Postal Service on Thursday, September 19.  The hearing was titled: “Outside the Box: Reforming and Renewing the Postal Service, Part I – Maintaining Services, Reducing Costs and Increasing Revenue Through Innovation and Modernization.”  Part II, scheduled for today, Thursday, September 26, promises to address workforce issues.

The first hearing didn’t break any new ground, let alone escape any boxes.  It did offer some interesting testimony from the OIG, David Williams, and there were a few interesting exchanges, but like most Senate hearings, it was a fairly scripted event with panelists giving written testimony and senators asking many of the same old questions.  There was one brief exchange between Senator Coburn of Oklahoma and the Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe that’s worth noting.

The exchange, which comes at about the one hour and eight minute mark of the hearing, involves a question from Senator Coburn and an answer by PMG Donahoe.  (The video is here.)  They are discussing the impact of labor on costs.

Senator Coburn: It is presently the law that an arbitrator cannot consider the financial health of the Postal Service in arbitrating a contract. Is that correct?

PMG Donahoe: That is correct.

What could be simpler and more direct?  The senator asks a question and the PMG responds, “That is correct.”

The problem here is that the senator offered a false premise— in point of fact, arbitrators can consider the financial health of the Postal Service — and then Mr. Donahoe confirmed the senator’s premise.  The PMG thus gave false testimony in a Congressional hearing.

The day after the hearing, I e-mailed the Postal Service’s public relations office in Washington for clarification of the PMG’s testimony.  After referring to the fact that Mr. Donahoe confirmed that the law states that an arbitrator cannot consider the financial health of the Postal Service, I asked a question as simple as the one asked of Mr. Donahoe: Would the PMG or the USPS please provide a direct reference or citation as to where that provision appears in either Title 39 or any other statute governing the USPS?

I got a response from David Partenheimer, who is listed on the Postal Service website as Manager, Media Relations FOIA, Board of Governors.  Mr. Partenheimer referred me to the PMG’s written testimony to the committee.  That testimony simply discusses the desire of the Postal Service for Congress to insert language in any legislation that would require an arbitrator to consider the financial health of the Postal Service during contract arbitration.  The answer did not address my question.

I e-mailed Mr. Partenheimer a second time and again asked for a specific citation in the law that says an arbitrator cannot consider the financial of the health of the Postal Service. His response was: "Mark, I understand, I’ll (sic) I can do is again direct you how the Postmaster General stated it in his written testimony. That is the clearest, most direct statement of the Postal Service’s position on arbitration."

I’ve written about this issue in several previous posts. The Postal Service would like to tilt the rules of arbitration in their favor.  The fact is that they often imply that the rules are now tilted against them by suggesting that arbitrators are constrained from considering the financial condition of the Postal Service. That implication is simply wrong.

Title 39 Section 1207 addresses the use of arbitration in settling disputes when labor and the Postal Service cannot come to a negotiated agreement. The most important language reads:

"The arbitration board shall give the parties a full and fair hearing, including an opportunity to present evidence in support of their claims, and an opportunity to present their case in person, by counsel or by other representative as they may elect.  Decisions of the arbitration board shall be conclusive and binding upon the parties.  The arbitration board shall render its decision within 45 days after its appointment."

Nothing in Title 39 and nothing in the rules governing arbitrators generally prevent the Postal Service from making a case based on the financial condition of the Postal Service and nothing prevents an arbitrator from considering a case based on the financial condition of the Postal Service.   So when Patrick Donahoe confirms in a direct and specific way that the law says an arbitrator “cannot consider the financial health of the Postal Service in arbitrating a contract,” then he is not telling the truth.

We’ve come to expect our politicians and public officials to gild the lily, to massage the truth, and to spin endlessly.  I think it’s wrong that we accept the constant dissembling that we do from public officials, but waffling, spinning, and dissembling are still different from lying.

During the hearing Mr. Donahoe did his share of spinning and dissembling.  For example, he said that the leadership of the Postal Service was listening to the public when it came up with POStPlan, the plan to cut hours at 13,000 small post offices rather than close them.  In reality, the plan was little more than a political response to a Congress that had grown weary of constituents complaining about seeing their post offices close.

When Mr. Donahoe assured Senators Tester and Heitikamp that the Postal Service was maintaining one and two day service standards in rural America, he neglected to mention that the clock doesn’t start on those standards until a postmark has been received.  Under the new collection regimen created by plant closings, that often means that a letter could be in the system for one, two, even three days before it receives a postmark and the clock officially starts.

Mr. Donahoe has little credibility with workers and employees when he says how much he appreciates them or how he’s concerned that these changes and reforms will afford them a soft landing.  Folks know he’s spinning, and they know that provisions like the requested changes in the arbitration language are designed specifically to harm postal workers and their families.

But in this particular exchange with Senator Coburn, Mr. Donahoe did something more than spin or dissemble or fail to provide all the facts and details.  In this particular instance Mr. Donahoe confirmed that the premise offered by Senator Coburn, a premise that was demonstrably and factually wrong, was true.  In doing so Mr. Donahoe crossed a line from merely massaging the truth to endorsing something that was clearly not true.  The current law does not say that an arbitrator may not consider the financial condition of the Postal Service, and claiming otherwise is not mere parsing or semantic spin.

I don’t expect anyone in Congress to raise an uproar about this.  No one is going to be filing charges about giving false testimony.  It’s likely that no one in Congress will actually care or take note of what happened.  In the big scheme of things, Mr. Donahoe’s “That’s correct” was just a little lie.

But this brief moment in the Postmaster General’s testimony should be an eye opener, and it should serve as a call to arms for those who are interested in preserving a Postal Service that actually serves the American public.  We need to bring a whole new level of scrutiny to discussions about the future of the Postal Service because what is happening is nothing less than an attack on labor, an attack on communities, and an attack on the idea of government as a useful entity.

[Mr. Jamison is a retired postmaster and a regular contributor to Save the Post Office; his articles are archived here.  He can be reached at]

(Image credit: George Washington and the cherry tree, engraving, 1846)