Like so many institutions, public and private, the United States Postal Service is facing a financial crisis of monumental proportions. To help it weather the storm, Postmaster General John Potter recently appealed to Congress to eliminate six-day delivery and restructure the accounting treatment of its long-term healthcare benefits. No prominent lawmaker so far has urged Congress to bail it out. Yet by almost any criteria, the Postal Service has a better claim on federal support than Bear Stearns or General Motors. For more than two centuries, postal policy has safeguarded civic engagement through administrative protocols so arcane that they almost never find their way into textbooks on constitutional law. This is unfortunate, since these protocols have long sustained the political journalism that is a bulwark of the Republic.
No republic can hope to endure without civic engagement informed by the political journalism of publications like The Nation. The best-known safeguard for the press is the First Amendment. Until the twentieth century, however, this constitutional provision had little practical import. Far more consequential, though far less heralded, were the institutional safeguards for the press that the founders enshrined in postal policy.
George Washington and James Madison had much to quarrel about in the 1790s. Yet they agreed that the low-cost circulation of periodicals in the mail promoted civic engagement in public affairs. Though postal policy subsidized all publications, large and small, it was structured to encourage small-circulation journals of opinion. Journalists like Horace Greeley supported preferential postal rates not only for large-circulation periodicals like his own New York Tribune but also for the many smaller publications that he believed the government had an obligation to sustain.
All this changed in 1970, when Congress established the Postal Service. No longer would Congress set postal rates and no longer was Congress the final arbitrator of postal policy. Authority over rate-making shifted from Congress to the Postal Service, while jurisdiction over postal policy devolved on the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) by virtue of its jurisdiction over the interpretation of postal law.
These shifts are reflected in a recently released PRC study of postal policy that Congress requested as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the Postal Service. The report proposes no radical innovations. It concludes that most Americans are satisfied with the level of postal service they currently receive and recommends no major changes in policy. More significant is what the PRC report leaves out. Nowhere does it address the media firestorm over the huge recent rate hikes for small magazines, and only in passing does it highlight the growing public dissatisfaction with the proliferation of advertising fliers known as junk mail–an issue with obvious environmental implications that is currently a hot topic in Europe, and that is also rapidly finding its way onto the public agenda in the United States.