The United States Postal Service is not broke.
It does not need to be downsized. Post offices do not need to be closed. Sorting centers do not need to be shuttered. Saturday service does not need to be scrapped. And hundreds of thousands of jobs in rural regions and urban neighborhoods do not need to be cut in a time of economic instability.
Yet, this week, the US Senate is debating about whether to advance a scheme that would begin a process of downsizing that—while not so immediately draconian as the plan advanced by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrel Issa (R-CA)—accepts the notion that the postal service's future is one of closures and cuts. Ultimately, that downsizing points the postal in a direction where privatization could be inevitable.
But that does not have to be the case.
National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando is right when he says: “Nothing is inevitable about the so-called decline of the U.S. Postal Service."
What is real, however, is the threat.
Republican leaders in Congress have made proposals for 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. That scheme won't be implemented by this Congress. But a half-step in that direction could be made.
Supposedly “centrist” US Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) have developed a series of proposals they describe as a “bipartisan consensus” for a death by slower cuts.
Their “21st Century Postal Service Act,” the latest variation on a supposed compromise now being weighed by the Senate, would still move the postal service toward the closing of hundreds of mail processing centers, the shuttering of thousands of post offices, delays in mail delivery and a pressuring of consumers toward more 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.’ ”
Republicans, and those Democrats who side with them on this issue, hold that radical surgery is necessary because the postal service is in financial crisis.
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.”
Earlier this year, however, we learned 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, US Senator Bernie Sanders argued at the time, put “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.”
NALC President Rolando made a similar case in an important speech delivered last week at a forum organized by the Center for Research in Regulated Industries at Rutgers University.
“What the Postal Service needs most is a new business model—built from the bottom up, one that looks above the immediate financial and structural problems to find opportunities to meet the evolving needs of the American people in the 21st century," explained Rolando.
"For all its current problems, the Postal Service remains an important national asset, as important to the nation’s infrastructure of services as the interstate highway system is to our physical infrastructure. Diminishing the Postal Service will only speed up its decline, even as failure to maintain a highway will only speed up its deterioration," the letter carriers president added. "The U.S. Postal Service was the nation’s first national network and it has served us well for over 200 years. Some in the Senate have suggested the appointment of a commission to study this great but troubled national institution. That suggestion deserves very serious consideration. But to have any meaning, such a commission must produce a serious business plan and be completed before the Senate enacts postal legislation. Saving the Postal Service is not a 'slash and burn' exercise, as management and some in Congress suggest. But it is not 'add hot water and stir' either. What is needed is a thoughtful, deliberate, informed, professional, bipartisan examination. This Congress could go down in history as the one that started the revitalization of this great institution, enabling it to help propel our nation’s 21st century prosperity."
That's a reasoned and reasonable approach.
The Senate should embrace it—not the slash-and-burn proposals of Republican leaders, nor the slower slash-and-burn proposals of supposed centrists.