January 28, 2013

Lobbying Tactics on Postal Issue Splits Nonprofits

The executive director of an association that successfully persuaded a powerful Congressman to commit to preserving discount postage rates for nonprofits lashed out Friday against Independent Sector for formally asking the representative to maintain that position.

Independent Sector and eight of the 600 nonprofits it represents sent a letter on Tuesday to Rep. Darrell Issa requesting his support for the discount rate when he reintroduces legislation for a massive overhaul of the United States Postal Service this year. Mr. Issa committed last year to removing a provision to eliminate the discount that was included in the USPS overhaul bill that Congress ultimately never took up before the end of 2012.

That irked Anthony Conway, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, who was frustrated that his 300-member organization was not consulted about sending the letter. He said he was concerned the action could backfire because it might irritate the powerful congressman.

“We’re baffled why some nonprofit groups have organized a public letter-writing campaign ostensibly to persuade Congressman Issa not to phase out nonprofit rates,” Mr. Conway said in a statement. “There was a provision in the original version of the House Republican postal reform bill last year that would have phased out nonprofit postal rates, but Congressman Issa deleted that provision in June 2012 after the Alliance and its allies raised the issue."

Mr. Issa has not expressed any change in that position, but Independent Sector wanted to make sure the bill is not reintroduced this year with the same language calling for the discount's elimination.

Independent Sector's vice president for public policy, Geoffrey Plague, said it is typical for Congress to recycle proposed legislation that did not pass rather than to rewrite an entire bill. Mr. Plague said it made sense to make the request because the discount was last discussed six months ago, the postal service continues to lose money, and the federal government still needs to find significant revenue for deficit reduction.  The discount cost the postal service about $1.3-billion in 2011.

"It’s a minor provision in a major piece of legislation," Mr. Plague said. "It didn’t feel right to assume they would remember it. Until legislation is passed that does not have this provision in it, it remains a live issue for the sector."

He said Mr. Issa's staff has agreed to meet on Monday with representatives from Independent Sector and from some of the eight groups that signed the letter.

Mr. Plague said the provision was never formally removed from the legislation and that it is much easier to stop something from being included in a new bill than it is to remove it.  Independent Sector's letter thanked Mr. Issa for his support of the discount and it was sent, Mr. Plague said, "to send a friendly reminder of where the discussion had ended at the end of the last Congress."

Mr. Conway sees another motive: credit. Independent Sector's Web site already highlights that it sent the letter to Mr. Issa. Now, Mr. Conway said, if a new bill to overhaul the postal service emerges in 2013 without a provision to eliminate the discount, Independent Sector will try to claim credit.

"The commitment is still there" from Mr. Issa, Mr. Conway said. "Don’t draw attention to an issue that doesn’t exist."

He said in an interview that the letter from Independent Sector—and signed by American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Red Cross, and five others groups—could be interpreted as questioning Mr. Issa’s commitment to preserving the discount. Mr. Issa, a California Republican, is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“It’s government 101 that if a member has made a commitment to do something, to challenge him and to suggest he might renege on that commitment is a huge offense to a member,” Mr. Conway said. “You don’t do that kind of thing.”

Neal Denton, who was the executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers from 1986 to 2006, said the letter was appropriate at the start of a new Congress.

"I think at the beginning of a new congressional session no one should take anything for granted," said Mr. Denton, now senior vice president for government relations at YMCA of the USA, which signed the letter sent to Mr. Issa. "We should all make sure we’re doubling back and talking to our old friends and our new friends up on Capitol Hill."

Mr. Conway said a public letter only belabors the obvious.

“We’re quite confident that the provision is dead,” Mr. Conway's statement said. “The Alliance and its allies spent a lot of time on the Hill communicating with Congressman Issa and other key House members about the issue. Congressman Issa got it. He told us that the provision would be taken out. And he kept his word and took it out. There’s been no movement to reintroduce the provision. Publicly attacking it now is beating a dead horse.”