A post office in Long Island City, New York. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Congressman Darrell Issa really is determined to end the United States Postal Service as Americans know it—indeed, as Americans have known it for more than 200 years.
Issa, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has a long history of attacking the postal service. But, now, he has taken advantage of a manufactured crisis to get his committee to vote twenty-two to seventeen in favor of a “Postal Reform Act of 2013” that American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey warns “will lead to the demise of the Postal Service.”
With Wednesday’s committee vote, the full House is now set to consider a plan that would, among other things, phase out door-to-door mail delivery by 2022. Instead of the traditional and highly popular delivery model that now exists, mail would be left in so-called “neighborhood cluster boxes” that would serve multiple residences.
The Issa plan also sets the stage for the elimination of most weekend mail service.
The changes Issa proposes would, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers, lead to “the elimination of more than 100,000 postal jobs and would dramatically cut service.” And in addition to its assault on the character and quality of postal service, the legislation includes classic austerity schemes, such as a prohibition against postal unions and management from negotiating protections against the closure of post offices, stations and branches, the consolidating of plants, the privatization of operations and layoffs.
The cuts, if implemented, would issue as an open invitation for private-delivery services to cash in by offering to fill the void created by those cuts. There are profits to be made by delivering mail to the front doors of Americans who can pay—and who want regular delivery on Saturdays. So it should come as no surprise that one of the first endorsements for Issa’s proposal came from the “Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service,” a group that counts FedEx as one of its most enthusiastic boosters.
The corporations that want to carve the USPS up and grab their pieces of America’s communications infrastructure are ready to pounce.
That is what is at stake.
APWU president Guffey says that “the legislation as written is totally unacceptable.”
It is so unacceptable, in fact, that it is unlikely to be implemented in its entirety anytime soon. But to the extent that Issa’s ideas influence the decision-making process with regard to the future of the USPS, the Issa plan is exceptionally dangerous.
The primary danger is the suggestion that the only fix for the postal service is downsizing. That’s the wrong route. There’s no question that the USPS can and must change. But schemes to cut services and to break up and sell off parts of the service begin with the false premise that its current financial challenges are evidence of structural flaws.
That’s not the case.
The service is losing money at an unsettling rate; it was down $16 billion in 2012. But the vast majority of the losses—roughly 80 percent, according to Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon—result from a mandate imposed by Congress in 2006, which requires the USPS to prepay retiree healthcare benefits for seventy-five years into the future. Major corporations could not shoulder such a burden. Neither could cities, states or the federal government.
Ending the mandate and requiring the postal service to operate along the lines of the most responsible private businesses would make the USPS viable.
So Issa is going at things in entirely the wrong way.
The right route is outlined by National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando in a letter to Issa and Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In it, Rolando writes that comprehensive postal reform must:
1. Stabilize the Postal Service’s finances by reforming or eliminating unwise and unfair pension and retiree health financing policies that have crippled the Postal Service’s finances since 2006;
2. Strengthen and protect the Postal Service’s invaluable first-mile and last-mile networks that together comprise a crucial part of the nation’s infrastructure;
3. Overhaul the basic governance structure of the agency to attract first-class executive talent and a private-sector style board of directors with the demonstrated business expertise needed to implement a strategy that will allow the Postal Service to innovate and take advantage of growth opportunities even as it adjusts to declining traditional mail volume; and
4. Free the Postal Service to meet the evolving needs of the American economy and to set its prices in a way that reflects the cost structure of the delivery industry while assuring affordable universal service and protecting against anti-competitive abuses.
While Issa is using flawed premises and flawed policies to hasten the demise of the postal service, others really are working to save it.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Congressman DeFazio have proposed legislation that would stabilize the finances of the USPS while freeing it to compete in the twenty-first century.
Says Sanders, “While we all understand that the Postal Service is experiencing financial problems today and that changes need to be made as the Postal Service adjusts to a digital world, these issues can be dealt with in a way which strengthens the Postal Service rather than initiating a series of cuts that could eventually lead to a death spiral.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, says, “Those of us who have been fighting at the grassroots against the corporate influence on both major parties have for years been waiting for an uncompromising, unrelenting expose of how big money shouts down the voices of citizens. This is it! Nichols and McChesney reveal how billionaires and corporations are buying our media, buying our elections. But Nichols and McChesney don’t stop there. They outline an agenda that is bold enough to make this country a real democracy. If you want to build a movement that gives power to the people, you must read this book.”
The USPS is not alone in facing financial difficulties—millions of Americans are struggling with poverty as well.