A screenshot from a recent advertisement by the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC targeting U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, for her sponsorship in 2006 of a post office overhaul bill.

Democrats are eager to blame problems with the U.S. Postal Service on Maine’s senior senator, Republican Susan Collins, who championed a 2006 bill that overhauled the struggling federal agency.

In a digital advertisement placed by the Senate Majority PAC, which exists to elect Democrats, a narrator declares, “Maine can’t afford to have the Postal Service fail. But Susan Collins led the passage of a bill that weakened the post office, and saddled it with over $100 billion in debt.”

The ad doesn’t mention that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, co-sponsored the bill or that it passed the Senate unanimously. The only opposition to it in the House, Collins said, came from Republicans.

Collins said Thursday that the Democrats’ claim is “absolutely, provably fiction” and that Schumer is pushing it despite his own role in backing the legislation because he wants to see her defeated so he can become the Senate’s majority leader.

“This is all about power,” said Collins, who is seeking a fifth term this year in one of the nation’s most hotly contested campaigns.

The law that Collins helped shepherd through contributed to the financial woes afflicting the Postal Service, laden with a $161 billion debt and smack in the middle of a political showdown thanks in large part to President Donald Trump’s antipathy to voting by mail.

One of the supporters of Collins’ 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, has since declared it, in an piece he wrote for Washington Monthly, “a blunder, one of the worst pieces of legislation Congress has passed in a generation.”

He didn’t blame Collins, though. He said both parties bore responsibility, though he pinned most of the blame on the GOP.

The bill, signed into law by President George W. Bush, had some good points, Pascrell admitted, but it also created a “fiendish straightjacket” that required the agency to prefund 50 years’ worth of post-retirement benefits, siphoning more than $5 billion annually from its revenues.

That’s a step required of no other federal agency and followed by few private companies.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who sponsored the 2006 bill in the House, said the prefunding provision wasn’t in the bill at all until the Office of Management and Budget in Bush’s administration declared the president wouldn’t sign it unless lawmakers added it in.

Davis said Thursday that he didn’t like the idea and Collins liked it even less. But they went along anyway because the bill as a whole was needed to preserve the Postal Service.

Collins said it was “insisted on by the administration,” not something legislators desired. “They wanted budget neutrality in the bill.”

It took a lot to come up with a bill that received “incredibly broad support,” Collins said, and she didn’t want to see it falter over one issue.

In December 2006, President George W. Bush signed a Postal Service bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who stood next to him for the ceremony at the White House. Eric Draper, White House

“It was a tough slog to get anything through,” Davis said, and the final measure contained “tons of trade-offs” to win the support of nearly everyone involved in the issue, from postal unions to printing companies.

The changes it made offered the Postal Service an escape from “a bleak financial outlook that put its mission of providing universal Postal Service at risk,” according to a General Accounting Office report that included a summary of the findings of the 2003 Presidential Commission on the United States Postal Service.

For a few years after its passage, Collins’ bill helped.

Then, Davis said, the Great Recession hit in 2008 and the volume of mail plummeted.

The Postal Service, once a key department of the government that was downgraded to an agency in 1970, could not overcome the crunch created by declining volumes of first-class mail and, especially, the burden of prefunding future employee-related costs.

“That’s what put ’em in the red,” U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, told MSNBC this week.

By 2011, Collins said, the Postal Service simply stopped any prefunding, insisting it could not afford to do it. She was sympathetic even then.

In 2012, Collins stepped in to offer a boost. She got the Senate to back a bill that extended the time period for the Postal Service to catch up on its prefunding from a decade to 40 years, a step that would have allowed it to put less money aside each year and improve its annual bottom line.

But the bill never passed the Republican-controlled House.

For the past nine years, the Postal Service hasn’t put any money toward prepaying future retirees’ health care, Collins said, so the provision has nothing to do with the crisis now.

“This is totally made-up fiction,” she said that’s especially ironic considering that the top three Senate Democrats all voted for her bill in 2006.

Still, the prefunding that occurred for half a decade because of Collins’ bill contributed to only part of a much bigger fiscal problem. The House passed a bill in February 309-106 to end the requirement entirely, but the Senate has not acted on it.

King, who favors abolishing the requirement for prefunding, said the Postal Service isn’t a business. There is no way, he said, that it’s ever going to make economic sense” to have carriers delivering mail to every address in America.

“Give me a break. This is a public service,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st Congressional District, said preserving the Postal Service is crucial to the Pine Tree State, which has 429 post offices and employs 3,300 Mainers.

A letter signed by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, said if Congress “is unable to preserve this critical institution, it will severely impact our way of life, including putting the health and safety of older Americans at risk and disenfranchising millions of voters who are unable to vote in person.”

Putting the Postal Service on solid footing for the long haul remains an uncertain task.

It has has been a sort of odd stepchild of the federal government for half a century, a quasi-corporate agency that’s required to fund its own operations but hamstrung by all sorts of congressional mandates that make it impossible for it to operate in the black.

For example, the Postal Service is not allowed to cut back on six-day-a-week delivery or to close unprofitable post offices, two obvious places where it could reduce costs. Nor is it allowed to try new ventures like an ordinary company might when its core business is struggling.

The General Accounting Office said in May that there “may be a tension between attempting to fulfill public service missions while operating in an efficient, business-like and financially self-sustaining manner.”

It said “considering the depth of USPS’ financial problems and its poor financial outlook, now may be an appropriate time for Congress to reconsider what institutional structure will be most appropriate for USPS in the 21st century.”

Davis said dealing the Postal Service in a big way is a tough chore politically.

Collins has pointed out there have only been two major efforts to fix it in the past century, one of them her bill.

Short-term, though, the answers are clearer.

Collins urged U.S. Senate leaders Thursday “to take up and pass as soon as possible” a $25 billion emergency relief measure she is sponsoring along with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. The American Postal Workers Union endorsed it Thursday, saying it “would set the Postal Service on firm footing to weather the COVID-19 storm and continue the vital services the country relies upon.”

“At this critical moment as the United States struggles to overcome a devastating public health crisis and as we gear up for a national election, the need for fast and reliable mail delivery is clear,” the two lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Senate’s majority and minority leaders.

“This basic and essential service must be preserved, and it is well within Congress’ capacity to ensure this happens,” Collins and Feinstein said.

It is not clear whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will act to provide the assistance, which has been the focus of considerable national attention amid many reports of delayed mail, sorting machines hauled away and other measures that some say are meant to create obstacles for those seeking to vote by mail.

Trump has repeatedly attacked the notion of mail-in voting, something he insists, without evidence, could threaten the integrity of election results.

Trump admitted last week, “If we don’t make a deal” on more COVID-19 relief, “that means they don’t get the money” to keep the Postal Service humming.

“That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it,” the president told Fox Business Network.

Pingree said on Twitter that the president is trying “to sabotage mail delivery before the election.”

After heavy criticism of the changes he’s making at the financially strapped federal agency, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced Tuesday that he would postpone some of the most controversial ones.

“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” DeJoy said.

In their letter to McConnell and Schumer, Collins and Feinstein said they share concerns about “operational changes implemented by Postmaster General DeJoy in the midst of a pandemic and in the lead-up to a national election.”

In a nod to the Postal Service’s future, Collins and Feinstein also wrote that the emergency aid bill would require the Postal Service’s board “to develop a plan to put the agency on a sustainable path toward long-term solvency.”

The U.S. House plans Saturday to approve a $25 billion package for the Postal Service, but the Senate is adjourned until Sept. 8 and there has been no indication McConnell will ask senators to return early. Schumer has called on him to do so.

Davis said if nothing else, the timing of the Postal Service’s troubles is awful for DeJoy.

“And his boss, Trump, doesn’t help at all with his tweeting” and incendiary comments, Davis said.

The president, he said, created “a perfect storm” that the Democrats are naturally trying to use to their advantage.

Collins said she tries to get along with every senator, even ones she doesn’t especially like, but attacks like the one launched by Schumer’s PAC make it difficult.

“This is a particularly challenging relationship,” Collins said.

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