Postage ado

October 17, 2005

The Senate's recent renewal of the 6-year-old Breast Cancer Research stamp – one of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's signature achievements – focuses attention on what the U.S. Postal Service can do for a good cause.

But the story behind its counterparts – the Heroes of 2001 stamp and the Stop Family Violence stamp – makes a pretty good case for leaving fundraising to charitable groups, and keeping it out of the hands of government.

According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the 1998 breast cancer stamp that was Feinstein's brainchild has raised $44 million for the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department for research grants, some of which have led to anti-tumor drug patents and new cancer detection methods. In addition to military matters, the Defense Department conducts research into broad issues, including health concerns.

The other two stamps? They have raised a collective $12.5 million, though Lord only knows when that money will be spent, and where it will go.

The folks responsible for raking in the proceeds from the sales of these two stamps have yet to award a penny of it. Nothing requires them to report to Congress on how they eventually spend the money.

The result is what one might expect: Families of the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks are frustrated and skeptical. People fighting domestic violence, and who would dearly like to use some of the stamp money to help children in abusive homes, feel the same way.

"The time lag between when funds are first raised and when they are distributed can be considerable," the GAO reported. "The time lag can result in consumer skepticism of, or disagreement with, the original program . . . ."


Congress created the Heroes of 2001 stamp to help families of emergency workers killed or disabled in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The stamp, sold between June 2002 and December 2004, raised $10.5 million. The organization responsible for spending the money – that would be the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA – has yet to award any of it.

FEMA apparently decided to wait until it received all proceeds before making the money available to eligible families and is creating a whole new program for administering the stamp proceeds, reports the GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress.

The Defense Department treats Breast Cancer Research stamp proceeds the same as all money that comes into its breast cancer research program. This allows the department to incorporate postage-stamp funds into its regular grant cycle each year.

"In contrast, FEMA . . . has taken nearly three years to award any . . . funds" from the Heroes of 2001 stamp, the GAO said in its Sept. 30 report.

This at a time when FEMA's reputation is in the mud thanks to its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the recent resignation of its director, Michael Brown.

Congress created the Stop Family Violence stamp in 2003 to fund domestic violence prevention programs. Stamp sales have reached about $2 million. The agency responsible for that stamp's money – the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – has yet to spend a nickel on grants that might help children trapped in abusive homes.

While the breast cancer stamp "provides a clear indication of how proceeds will be used," the GAO found, "the fundraising causes benefiting from the Stop Family Violence stamp may not be as apparent." This "has resulted in reduced support for the stamp by advocacy groups," the GAO concludes.

The Semipostal Authorization Act calls for yearly reports on the use of the Postal Services' stamp proceeds. The three fundraising stamps were not issued under the act, which means the agencies pulling in all that money aren't required to report on how they use it. This has left advocacy groups – not to mention the stamp-buying public – a bit in the dark.

Perhaps, the GAO suggests, federal agencies that haul in the proceeds from the sales of special stamps ought to report to Congress every now and then, just so stamp-buying Americans can be certain of what's happening to their money.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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