The United States Postal Service is not in crisis. Nor is it broke. It is in transition. The only question is whether that transition will be toward irrelevance and eventual privatization, or whether this vital national resource will be allowed to provide needed public services and shore up rural communities and inner-city neighborhoods.
At the opening of the debate about the future of the service, it seemed as though the issue was settled. As with the debates about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the proponents of privatization were on the march, arguing that in the face of current and anticipated shortfalls, only deep cuts could “save” a popular public program. Even the postmaster general urged the embrace of a radical austerity plan that would shutter as many as 3,700 post offices, close up to 252 mail-processing centers, jeopardize more than 200,000 jobs and begin a contraction of service that seemed all but certain to force Americans to rely on corporate delivery services.
But the “crisis” was manufactured. In 2006 Republicans had forced the USPS to prefund retiree health benefits for seventy-five years into the future. This—not changes in the modes and manners of communication, not competition from FedEx, not that USPS employees are members of unions and earn decent pay—was the primary fiscal challenge facing the Postal Service. “No other government agency or private company bears this burden, which costs the USPS approximately $5.5 billion annually,” noted the American Postal Workers Union.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and a handful of others in Congress actually listened to the unions, which said the cuts were not necessary. Sanders got USPS Inspector General David Williams to review the books; his inquiry found that because of the prefunding burden, the USPS had “significantly exceeded” the level of reserves that the government or corporations have customarily maintained to meet pension and retiree healthcare demands. “Using ratepayer funds, it has built a war chest of over $326 billion to address its future liabilities,” said Williams.
That report, argued Sanders, put the “rationale for postal cuts in doubt.” And that doubt created an opening for the senator and his allies to force significant, if insufficient, changes to the 21st Century Postal Service Act, which the Senate considered in late April. Amendments reduced the prefunding burden, established some protections for rural post offices and processing centers, and delayed a devastating shift from six-day to five-day service for at least two years. To be sure, as National Association of Letter Carriers union president Fredric Rolando said, the measure is still “deeply flawed.” But even this progress is threatened as the postal debate heads to the less friendly House. Under pressure to act by May 15, when a moratorium on closures ends, the House could enact a worse measure. And much could be lost in the reconciliation process.