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Interview with Senator Tom Coburn

Interview with Senator Tom Coburn

By John King, USA - September 6, 2011

KING: Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma was also at today's hearing on the future of the Postal Service.

You just heard your colleague there, Senator, saying by this time next year, the Postal Service as we know it could be gone.

What needs to be done? And does what need to be done include some form of taxpayer-assisted, taxpayer bailout?

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: No.

Look, the business model that the Post Office is run on is failed, because technology has outstripped first-class mail. And I've been working on this subject for 12 years. And we continue to have estimates that are erroneous. The fact is, is the vast majority of first class mails are going to go away and we need to have a business model that adjusts for that.

Senator Carper is right, if we don't do anything, if we don't change the flexibility that the management needs at the Post Office, if we don't let them run it to meet what the market says is out there in terms of delivering goods to homes, then they're not going to be able to. There's two or three critical problems that haven't been addressed by Congress that are going to have to be addressed if you want to continue to have a Postal Service that has a monopoly mandate and delivered high quality with a great bunch of people.

KING: There will be some people who say get the government out of this, let the private sector take care of this. Is that the approach?

COBURN: Well, the private sector won't take care of actually delivering to every address in the country. And that's the problem, is you have to give them the monopoly and they have the capability to do it. But we -- the Congress, through our laws, had hamstrung the Postal Service to where they can't change to meet their business model and that's what has to happen.

You know, just a couple of things. One is, is when they negotiate a contract with the labor unions, they can't consider their financial -- or fiscal impact on the health of the Post Office. Well, nobody's ever going to be successful if none of the -- if any of the labor contracts don't consider the financial health of the organization for which you're going to pay them to work. So, that's number one.

Number two is you got to give them the flexibility to be able to offer and negotiate benefits that are realistic and competitive in the world. The benefit cost per year per postal employee and salary is about $84,000. That's pretty significant across the country. So, what we need to do is have the real demands for the labor and the real price that the market can afford meet on that and let it really be negotiated rather than the Congress stepping in the way and say here's the parameters, not real economic parameters under which you can negotiate.

I think that they're realizing that they have big problems. And I think we've got a good postmaster general that wants to address those, but, you know, there's all sorts of people who have vested interests in the status quo. Like Saturday delivery or Post Office or some places.

You know, in my hometown, we have two post offices in drugstores. It's working well. We don't have to have all the post offices that we have.

KING: And --

COBURN: Go ahead.

KING: Forgive me. So, you agree with the postmaster general that when he says five-day delivery and close somewhere in the ballpark of 3,700 post offices, and shed about 120,000 jobs. Is that a good start from your perspective?

COBURN: Well, I think that's one of the starts. The other thing I would do is giving the capability to truly negotiate these labor contracts based on the financial health of the Post Office is.

Do you know any other organization that negotiates labor contracts and not look at their balance sheet or their income statement? I mean, that's ridiculous. And that's not to say that postal employees shouldn't be paid what they are and more. But the fact is give them the freedom to run it.

So, we're going to have to -- otherwise, what you're going to have is a subsidized Postal Service. We'll be right back where we were and we're going to -- as taxpayers, you're not going to pay it in a stamp. You're going to pay it through additional taxes and we can't afford that, John. We have so many other areas where we're stealing -- robbing Peter to pay Paul right now. We just can't do that again.

So, the Post Office is going to have to stand on its own. We need to give them the flexibility to do that. And with that will come some change in service but not necessarily a diminution in services.

KING: And as you come up with these changes, one of the realities is, as you're doing it at a tough time for federal spending and a very, very tough time in the employment sector. The Post Office happens to be an entity that has a very significant portion of African-American and minority employment. It has a huge percentage of veterans, especially disabled veteran employees.

When you're cutting all these jobs, do you have to do anything special to take care of those populations?

COBURN: Well, first of all, I don't know the numbers. The total is about 225,000 more. They've saved 125,000 through attrition thus far. I'm sure that we can protect those.

You know, this is over a time period, but we need to give them the authority to do whatever they need to do. And I don't have any problem giving preference to those people who have served our country. And, you know, we have a great Postal Service group of employees, but we just have too many of them for the volume of mail that we have.

And realistically, you're either going to subsidize them to not work. You know, another problem the postal service is work rules, getting greater flexibility so you can utilize people more efficiently and effectively.

I mean, we just -- it's just time for common sense. None of it's partisan. None of it's about not taking care of groups and not being attentive to the needs of people. It's the realistic aspect as first of all, the federal government doesn't have any money to subsidize the Post Office anymore. And number two is, we can't run any federal government agency of any type in anything other than a commonsense fashion.

KING: As you know, a lot of people harshly criticize the Postal Service management. You seem to be saying the management, maybe it has some problems. But the bigger problem is the that the Congress and other entities of the government have essentially put mandates on them, told them you must do these things in these ways.

COBURN: Yes. And we've actually hand cuffed them so they can't respond to the changing market. Look, one of the big problems with the Post Office is they way overestimated what the revenues were going to be. This $8.5 billion -- two years ago, they weren't going to lose any money this year because they thought they were going to have first class mail. Every time they've given me an estimate, they were wrong.

If we would quit hand-cuffing them and have management actually be real, be conservative in their estimates, not exaggerating in their estimates, I think we can solve the problem.

KING: Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- sir, appreciate your time tonight.

COBURN: Thank you. Good to be with you. 

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John King, USA

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