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GOP Senator Under Fire In Maine For Supporting Law To Overhaul The Postal Service


The state of the Postal Service is a big campaign issue this year, especially in Maine's highly competitive Senate race. Incumbent Republican Senator Susan Collins is under fire for her role in drafting a 14-year-old law that Democrats say has crippled the Postal Service's finances. Steve Mistler from member station Maine Public Radio has the story.

STEVE MISTLER, BYLINE: Maine is the largest and least-populated state in New England, and it's especially dependent on the Postal Service. So when reports of late medications and checks first emerged, Senator Susan Collins's opponent, Democrat Sara Gideon, saw an opening.


SARA GIDEON: Unfortunately, Maine Senator Susan Collins helped pass and champion the legislation to create that mandate. And combined with the coronavirus, it's been a perfect storm for challenges for the Postal Service.

MISTLER: The mandate Gideon refers to was part of a 2006 law to overhaul the Postal Service that Collins co-sponsored. It requires the agency to aggressively pay in advance for retiree health costs to the tune of about $5 billion a year. No other federal agency has such a requirement, but it was inserted into a bill designed to get the Postal Service's finances in order and without jacking up postal rates.


SUSAN COLLINS: With this landmark reform legislation, Mr. President, we will put the Postal Service on a firm financial footing.

MISTLER: It didn't turn out that way. 2006 marked the last year that the Postal Service recorded a net profit.


COLLINS: To blame it on a 14-year-old bill is pretty preposterous.

MISTLER: In an interview with Maine Public Radio, Collins says the Postal Service's woes have been intensified by the pandemic, which is why she supports a $25 billion relief bill for the agency. A spokeswoman for Collins later said the aggressive payment schedule for the retiree health costs was inserted into the 2006 bill at the request of the George W. Bush White House. Still, it hasn't stopped a barrage of attack ads against Collins, like this one from the Senate Majority PAC.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But Susan Collins led the passage of a bill that weakened the post office and saddled it with over $100 billion in debt, pushing USPS to the brink.

MISTLER: But the ads have left out some key context. Senate Democrats unanimously supported the 2006 measure. Regardless, postal unions have long complained that the requirement distorts the agency's finances. Mark Seitz is the head of a local postal union.

MARK SEITZ: That has been, on paper, what makes the Postal Service look like they're losing money. But operationally, over the last 20 years, the Postal Service has made money at least 18 out of the last 20 years.

MISTLER: Before the pandemic, the House voted overwhelmingly to scuttle the mandate. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked the bill. Democrats accused Republicans of wanting to keep the mandate because it justifies big cuts by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.


COLLINS: This is an issue that's been totally misrepresented, unfortunately, by my opponent.

MISTLER: Asked if the senator supports the House bill that repeals the mandate, a spokeswoman only said that Collins continues to support giving the Postal Service more flexibility to meet its current obligations. It's an answer unlikely to dampen criticism of Collins, who already faces a difficult reelection.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Augusta, Maine.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: September 4, 2020. In this story, we incorrectly say Maine is the least populated state in New England. It is, however, the least-densely populated state in the region.]

(SOUNDBITE OF POP UNKNOWN SONG, "AS GOD AND EVEREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.