Prez throws PRC Chair under the bus, WaPo misses the bus completely

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Josh Hicks has a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post about the announcement that Ruth Goldway has stepped down as Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, to be replaced by Commissioner Robert Taub as Acting Chairman.  It's entitled “Jet-setting postal regulator replaced amid scrutiny of travel habits.”  

Hicks begin his article like this: “President Obama replaced the globetrotting chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission this week after years of criticism over frequent trips she charged to U.S. taxpayers.”

Hicks provides no evidence that Goldway was replaced because of the controversy over her "travel habits."  Instead, the WaPo just attacks her as “jet-setting” and a “globetrotter,” as if that explains everything.  As for actual facts, Hicks mostly recycles some quotes and statistics from a hatchet job the WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe did on Goldway back in 2012. 

Hicks also draws some details from a November 4 article in the Washington Free Beacon, another attack on Goldway's travels that recycles from O'Keefe's piece.  The Beacon is a project of the Center for American Freedom, a conservative advocacy group, and it's not shy about promoting a right-wing ideology.  On postal matters, it's probably not too far from the Washington Post, which has a track record of ill-informed op-eds endorsing the dismantling of the Postal Service.

The bogus travel issue was examined in a previous post back in February 2012.  It was clear then, as it is now, that attacking Goldway for her travel expenses had nothing to do with the cost of her travels or whether or not her trips are appropriate or necessary.  The attacks are about getting Goldway out of the way.  Now they’ve finally succeeded.

Since Hicks' article is short on facts, here are some numbers to consider.

According to O'Keefe's 2012 article, Goldway spent $70,000 on travel between August 2009 (when she became the PRC chair) and January 2012.  That comes to about $28,000 a year.  According to Hicks’ article yesterday, Goldway spent $71,000 in official travel expenses during her first three years as chairman.  That comes to about $23,700 a year.  

Hicks notes that the Beacon reported that between 2012 and 2013, Goldway spent over $36,000.  That amount looks to be for two years.  Senator Tom Coburn included Goldway in his Wastebook 2013 — his annual list of 100 examples of Washington wastefulness — and stated that Goldway spent $15,000 in 2012 and $19,000 in 2013.

Hicks writes that Goldway’s travel budget during 2009-2012 was “outpacing her predecessor,” but he bases that on O'Keefe's piece and doesn't provide any numbers.

The previous chair of the PRC was Dan Blair.  According to the WaPo’s 2012 article, Blair spent $58,788 on travel during his two-and-a-half-year tenure (December 2006 through August 2009) — about $23,500 a year.  

A report prepared by the PRC in response to the travel controversy provides similar numbers.  Between March 2007 and June 2010, Blair spent a total of $70,262: $20,794 in FY 2007; $23,869 in FY 2008; $16,725 in FY 2009; and $8,874 in FY 2010.  That averages out to about $1,800 a month or $21,600 annually, and it includes twelve months Blair wasn't even serving as chairman.

Goldway’s expenses were thus very comparable to her predecessor’s, especially if you consider the rising costs of travel.  They were also in the same ballpark as other high-ranking postal officials.

An OIG audit on “Officers’ Travel and Representation Expenses for Fiscal Year 2011” shows that the travel and representation expenses for USPS officers totaled about $700,000.  The audit for 2012 shows a total of $806,000, and the audit for 2013 shows a total of $771,000.  These budget numbers cover about 40 USPS officers, so the average annual expense per officer would come to about $19,000.  That being an average, some officers had to have spent much more.

The OIG also does an annual audit for the members of the USPS Board of Governors.  It appears that they too like to get around.  In 2011, they spent $163,000 in travel and miscellaneous expenses; in 2012, they spent $216,00; and in 2013, $153,000.  There are supposed to be nine members on the BOG (not including the PMG and Deputy PMG), but there were several vacancies throughout this period.  For example, as of Sept. 30, 2013, there were just five members (and at the moment there are only four).  The audit reports don't break the numbers down per person or separate travel from miscellaneous expenses, but there's enough data to estimate the average annual budget per member:  somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000.  

One could probably look into the travel expenses incurred by other high-ranking government officials with international responsibilities.  The numbers are unlikely to show that Goldway has spent much more on travel than is normal for someone in her position.

It’s also important to remember that 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 works with postal regulators in other countries, sharing information, experiences, and best practices.

Considering that it is required to play this international role, it’s not surprising that the PRC chair, along with the other Commissioners and staff, needs to travel a lot.  Even still, the travel expenses of the Commission are relatively small.  According to an audit report by the PRC OIG, the Commission spent $283,205 on travel over a three year period, October 2010 through September 2013.  The Commission’s annual budget is about $14.3 million, so travel expenses come to less than one percent of the total budget.

That OIG report, by the way, notes a number of issues in the PRC's travel practices and policies, and it made several recommendations for improving things.  The issues all involve matters like lodging rates, per diem rates, monitoring credit cards, getting approval for a trip, and so on.  There's nothing in the report questioning how much Goldway spent on travel or whether the trips were appropriate or excessive.

Rather than looking into any of this, Hicks' article just recycles a Darrell Issa quote from O’Keefe’s 2012 piece: “When organizations are struggling,” said Issa, “good leaders often make a pointed effort of curbing their own expenses as an example.”

Issa, it should be noted, is the richest man in Congress, and he too likes to travel. Back in 2006, Issa was described as “the best-traveled member of San Diego County's congressional delegation.”  He ranked 24th among all House members on a list of taxpayer-paid travel.  

The bottom line is that the controversy over Goldway’s travel budget is just a tempest in a teapot. The real story here is not her travel habits but the fact that Goldway was replaced by Commissioner Taub because powerful forces in the government wanted that to happen for entirely different reasons.

Goldway’s positions on postal issues have often put her at odds not only with Issa but also with Senators Tom Coburn and Tom Carper, who until recently headed up the Senate committee that deals with postal reform.  Carper was unhappy with Goldway because of how long it took the PRC to do its advisory opinion on five-day delivery (as noted here), and he pushed the PRC to change its rules on the advisory opinion process.  

The legislation proposed by Carper and Coburn would have minimized the role of the PRC in regulating postal rates (as discussed in this previous post by Mark Jamison).  They would have also overruled the PRC's decision on the exigent case by making the rate increase permanent (the PRC limited it to a year and a half).  

In July, Carper and Coburn wrote to President Obama asking him to name a new PRC chair to replace Goldway before her term expired.  (The existence of this letter was revealed by the Washington Free Beacon in its November 4 hit piece on Goldway, prompting PostalMag.com to wonder — presciently, it turns out —  if someone wasn't out to get Goldway.)

Apparently the President was listening to the two senators.  Now he has replaced Goldway with Taub, and Goldway has said she'll leave the PRC when her replacement on the Commission is confirmed by the Senate, probably early next year.

It's not the best ending for someone who has served on the Commission since 1998, when she was appointed by President Clinton.  As noted on the PRC website, Goldway is "the longest serving, full-time, Senate-confirmed Presidential appointee within the Executive Branch of the United States Government."  

Obama's decision to replace Goldway raises a couple of important questions.  Why did Obama replace a Democratic chairman with a Republican? And why has the president not taken care to give the PRC a Democratic majority? 

The PRC normally has five commissioners, so Obama could have easily made sure three of them were Democrats.  Instead, he has made appointments giving the Republicans the majority.  Currently there are three commissioners — two Republicans and one Democrat.  Two appointees are waiting for confirmation — one Republican and one Democrat.  Once they're confirmed, the Commission will thus have a three-to-two Republican majority as well as being chaired by a Republican.

It’s not hard to see where all this is going.  With the Republicans in control of Congress, with Republicans holding a majority of the PRC and its chairmanship, and with a president that doesn’t seem to care much about preserving the Postal Service, it’s clear that over the next couple of years we’re in for more of the same — more cuts in service, more slowing down of delivery times, more cluster boxes, more rate increases, more downsizing of the workforce, more part-time contract labor, more outsourcing to the private sector, more secret NSA deals with corporate partners like Amazon, more Village Post Offices in convenience stores and postal counters in big box stores, more post office and plant closures, more dismantling of the infrastructure, more piecemeal privatization.

The PRC doesn’t have all that much power to stop any of these things (even if it were so inclined), but with Goldway gone and Taub in place, it will be a bit easier for the next Postmaster General to continue the Potter-Donahoe agenda and for Congress and the President to help her do just that.  And that’s what this whole story is about — not a few thousand dollars in travel expenses.

(Photo credit: PRC Chairman Goldway at an international conference)

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