You may have heard that the United States Postal Service is in dire financial straits, having lost $2.8 billion in 2008 and on track to lose twice that much this year. Things are so bad that the Postmaster General recently asked Congress for permission to curtail mail delivery six-days a week.

This matters because the USPS continues to provide a vital public service. The Post Office not only reliably delivers political periodicals like The Nation — a class of content vital to a functioning democracy — to anyone anywhere in the country, but the mails still serve to bind our vast populace together, with many post offices serving as de facto community centers.

In this time of fiscal crisis, there is thankfully an easy way to support the USPS in the form of House Resolution 22. This arcane but very important legislation in the House, carrying 76 co-sponsors, calls for a change in the accounting treatment of retiree health benefits for USPS workers – a change that would not affect employee benefits, or raise government costs, but would make it far easier for the USPS to balance its books, as required by law, without drastic service cuts or layoffs.

An obscure legal requirement currently forces the Postal Service to prefund 80 percent of its future retiree health benefit costs by 2016, costing the agency at least $5.5 billion a year on top of the $2 to $3 billion per year it annually pays. No other enterprise in the country – public or private – is required to prefund such costs at all, much less on such an onerous payment schedule.

H.R. 22 would save the Postal Service an average of $3.5 billion per year over the next eight years, and, as under current law, any remaining liability in 2016 would be amortized over 40 years. This bill cannot solve all the Postal Service’s problems, but without it, the continued viability of the Postal Service is in serious jeopardy – which is why the major postal workers unions, the APWU and the NALC, both support the legislation. (Legislative consultant Robert Brinkman goes into more detail as to the importance of refinancing retiree health benefits at postmasters.org.)

The mail, to me, should be thought of like the highways. They shouldn’t need to make a profit or even break even — they’re legitimate functions of government which should, if necessary, be subsidized. Yes, the rise of digital media has reduced the importance of the mails in circulating political opinion. But it hasn’t eliminated its historic role particularly at a time when only fifty-five percent of all Americans currently have access to high-speed internet connections.

The Postal System remains a critical and fundamental part of the nation’s communications and commerce infrastructure, and providing timely delivery at affordable rates is still essential to the nation. Please voice your support by asking your elected reps to support HR 22.