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An Easy Task for Congress: Save the Post Office | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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An Easy Task for Congress: Save the Post Office

The US Postal Service is in the midst of a manufactured crisis. It is supposedly broke and headed toward a sort of fiscal cliff of its own. If it goes over, the likely result is privatization of its profitable enterprises and elimination of the commitment to universal service that has been the service's promise since the founding of the republic.

But that does not have to happen.

Congress undermined the financial stability of the postal service during a lame-duck session six years ago.

It can repair the damage done during this session.

The task is not difficult.

The lift is not heavy.

It is merely a matter of will.

Friday’s New York Times noted that “the Postal Service on Thursday reported a record $15.9 billion net loss for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, bringing the financially troubled agency another step closer to insolvency.”

That’s the CliffsNotes version of the story. And if people read no further, they’ll think that the USPS is a mess. But it’s not. It’s merely in a financial mess created by Congress.

Two-thirds of the $15.9 billion “loss” involved what the Times referred to as “accounting expenses of $11.1 billion related to two payments that the agency was supposed to make into its future retiree health benefits fund.”

Those accounting expenses were imposed not by necessity but by Congress. And the imposition can be lifted, along with restrictions on the ability of the service to compete.

In 2006, a Republican Congress—acting at the behest of the Bush-Cheney administration—enacted a law that required the postal service to “pre-fund” retiree health benefits seventy-five years into the future. No major private-sector corporation or public-sector agency could do that. It’s an untenable demand.

“[The] Postal Service in the short term should be released from an onerous and unprecedented burden to pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits over a ten-year period,” says US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “With $44 billion now in the fund, the Postal Service inspector general has said that program is already stronger than any other equivalent government or private-sector fund in the country. There already is more than enough in the account to meet all obligations to retirees.”

“The Postal Service should also be allowed to recover more than $13 billion in overpayments it has made to its pension plans,” Sanders explained earlier this year, as the current “crisis” began to take shape. “With these changes alone, the Postal Service would be back in the black and posting profits.”

Sanders and other concerned legislators have gotten the Senate to take some steps toward addressing what is, in reality, a Congressional crisis—not a postal crisis. But the disengaged and dysfunctional Republican leadership in the House has failed to act in an even minimally responsible manner.

The Post Office will need to make changes. It will need to evolve as the ways in which Americans communicate change. But it can and should remain the vital source of community and connection that it has been since the nation’s founding. For that to happen, however, the USPS must be allowed by maintain staffing and infrastructure, to expand services, to operate in a fiscally responsible and fiscally sane manner—not required to default.

And now is the time to act.

The unions that represent postal workers say so.

The unions that represent postal workers say so. National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando correctly notes that, with the rejection of the austerity agenda proposed by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, “The election offers the prospect that the financial problems facing the United States Postal Service can be resolved in a fair and reasonable manner that benefits the public.”

But it’s not just unions that are looking for a postal “fix.” The businesses that rely on the postal service are demanding action. “The Postal Service is facing a fiscal cliff of its own, and any unanticipated drop in mail volumes could send the agency over the edge,” says Art Sackler, who works with the business-led Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, which has urged Congress to enact comprehensive postal legislation during its lame-duck session. “If Congress fails to act, there could be postal slowdowns or shutdowns that would have catastrophic consequences for the eight million private-sector workers whose jobs depend on the mail.”

The concerns of small businesses and mailers create an space for President Obama to make a call for congressional action to renew the Postal Service.

Obama should speak up for the Postal Service now, as the lame-duck session gets started. And he and his fellow Democrats should look to build a coalition for its future with rural Republicans.

Yes, those rural Republicans are conservative on a host of issues. But a collapse of the USPS would do the most severe damage to rural regions, particularly in the West.

Is it crazy to imagine such a coalition? Actually, some Western members of Congress who have been harsh critics of the president and the Democrats on other issues are reasonably sympathetic when it comes to the future of post offices. At the second presidential debate, I spent a good deal of time talking with Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz talking about the USPS. We both knew that the issue would not come up in the narrowly constructed debate; but we also recognized that it should be on the agenda.

Chaffetz is one of Obama’s toughest critics, but as the ranking Republican ranking member on the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia, he understands at least some of the absurdity to the demands that have been placed on the postal service. And he is not alone in this regard.

Take a look at the election maps of the United States and you will see a fascinating dynamic: There are dozens of rural counties across the United States that voted for Barack Obama for president and for Republicans in US House and Senate races.

Voters still split tickets. They are not naïve. They know it is hard to get Democrats and Republicans working together these days. But they expect at least a measure of cooperation on issues that are essential to the small towns where they live: like passing a farm bill and saving a postal service.

Advocates for the postal service might even remind some of our “constitutional conservative” friends that the USPS is one of the few American institutions referenced in the founding document.

“Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7 of the US Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to establish and ensure operation of the Postal Service…” notes Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. “Congress is presiding over the disestablishment of the Postal Service. Today a manufactured default created by Congressional legislation is pushing the Postal Service to the brink.”

Kucinich is right.

This postal “crisis” was manufactured by Congress.

The same Congress—perhaps with a prod from a president who has a mandate to get things done—can during this lame-duck session manufacture a socially necessary and fiscally responsible repair to the system.

The USPS is not “broke.” It was broken by Congress. And it should be fixed by Congress.

Legislators have created a debt crisis to push through an austerity agenda. Check out Robert Borosage on why “A Grand Bargain on the Fiscal Cliff Could Be a Grand Betrayal.”

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