Republican leaders in Congress are talking about dismembering the US Postal Service by cutting the number of delivery days, shuttering processing centers so that it will take longer for letters to arrive, closing thousands of rural and inner-city post offices and taking additional steps that would dramatically downsize one of the few national programs ordained by the original draft of the US Constitution. At the same time, supposedly “centrist” US Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) are trying to build a “bipartisan consensus” for a death by slower cuts.
Their “21st Century Postal Service Act,” a supposed compromise now being weighed by the Senate, would still force the postal service to close hundreds of mail processing centers, shut thousands of post offices, cause massive delays in mail delivery and push consumers toward most expensive private-sector services. It is, says National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando, “a classic case of ‘killing the Post-Office in order to save it.’ ”
Their rationale for making the bloodletting, much discussed in the media, holds that radical surgery is necessary because the postal service is in financial crisis.
The postal service, we are told, is broke.
There’s only one problem with this diagnosis.
The postal service is not broke.
At the behest of the Republican-controlled Congress of the Bush-Cheney era, the USPS has been forced since 2006 to pre-fund future retiree health benefits. As the American Postal Workers Union notes, “This mandate is the primary cause of the agency’s financial crisis. No other government agency or private company bears this burden, which costs the USPS approximately $5.5 billion annually.”
Now, however, we learn that the pre-funding requirements have taken so much money from the USPS that—according to the postal service’s own inspector general—it has “significantly exceeded” the level of reserved money that the federal government or private corporations divert to meet future pension and retiree healthcare demands. “Using ratepayer funds, it has built a war chest of over $326 billion to address its future liabilities,” acknowledges Postal Service Inspector General David C. Williams.
That, argues US Senator Bernie Sanders, puts “the rationale for postal cuts in doubt.”
Sanders, who has taken the lead in challenging cuts to the USPS and who requested the assessment by Williams, says that on the basis of information contained in the assessment, the Postal Service should be released from the “onerous and unprecedented burden” of being forced to put $5.5 billion every year into its future retiree health benefits fund. Sanders’s office explains that “even if there are no further contributions from the post office, and if the fund simply collects 3.5 to 4 percent interest every year, that account will be fully funded in twenty-one years.” At the same time, the senator suggests, the postal service should be allowed to recover more than $13 billion in overpayments it has made to a federal retirement systems.
That’s not the end of the debate about the future of the postal service. Along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sanders is working with key Senate Democrats—and, the group hopes, some Republicans who represent rural states—to develop amendments, and potential alternatives, to the “21st Century Postal Service Act.” Not only would they get the accounting right, they would remove barriers to the USPS so that it can compete and grow.
“I believe the Postal Service will find more and more senators and representatives standing up here in Congress to prevent rash and irreversible decisions, until USPS can present a cogent strategy for growing in a new era of mail,” says Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “A scorched-earth strategy, focused only on the short-term horizon, is a strategy for failure. It is a race to the bottom. The Postal Service needs a plan not only to survive, but to thrive. To do that the Postal Service must listen to its customers, understand its market, and play to its strengths, not trade its strengths away.”
John Nichols' new book on protests and politics, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, will be published next week by Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising