Earlier this month Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced his intention to cut back mail delivery from six to five days per week, effective Aug. 12. The Postal Service also plans to close about 200 mail processing plants in addition to the 200 closed in the last six years. As many as 3,000 small post offices may be closed over the next few years. These cutbacks will not improve the position of the USPS. Savings estimates for these measures fail to factor in the lost business opportunities incurred by reducing service.
The Postal Service has already relaxed delivery standards as a result of closing processing plants. In other words, mail is already being delayed. Shorter hours of operation for customer windows mean fewer chances for people to buy stamps and other products and less access for picking up parcels and held mail.
Many businesses and rural areas rely on six-day delivery. The Postal Service delivers checks and other important documents, pharmaceuticals, live animals such as chicks and ducklings, eggs for incubation, bees and other insects, live plants and other perishables that must be delivered in a timely manner. Many businesses rely on six-day delivery to provide prompt service to their customers. Small businesses are increasingly operated from private homes and would even benefit from delivery seven days a week, as would catalog-based businesses.
The primary cause of postal fiscal problems is legislation mandating a $5.5 billion annual payment to prefund retiree health care benefits. No other business or government agency in the country shares this obligation. The legislation was passed in 2006 by a lame duck Congress on a voice vote. This prefunding accounts for 80 percent of postal red ink since it was passed. A bill that would have corrected the unnecessary prepayment was co-sponsored by more than half of the House in 2012. It was blocked by committee Chair Darrell Issa.
The second most important factor in postal economics is the recession. This recession was caused by the removal of many of the regulations on financial interests by people committed to seeing government fail. They have an ideological investment in ensuring that government not succeed. A successful institution like the Postal Service is a special target for them.
The Postal Service is successful in many ways. U.S. citizens perennially rank the Postal Service as the best federal institution in the country. It delivers nearly half of all the mail in the world. Postal rates are lower here than in any other nonsubsidized postal system, even though transportation distances are higher than in most countries.
The agency provides 500,000 middle-class jobs, employing more Americans than any other civilian workforce except Wal-mart and at a higher living standard. It hires a greater proportion of minorities than many employers. Forty percent of postal staff are women. It is the largest employer of our military veterans. Thirty thousand of these jobs could be lost if delivery days are reduced, further fueling the recession.
The Postal Service is not in debt. Not only are retiree health benefits overfunded, but the agency also has surplus funds in the civil service and federal employee retirement systems. These funds could be transferred to balance operating losses. This action would not be a taxpayer bailout. All funds placed in those accounts come from the sale of stamps and other products and services.
Customers who want stronger public postal service can contact their congressional representatives and ask them to eliminate the retiree health benefit prefunding obligation. Encourage them to co-sponsor House Resolution 30, introduced by Missouri Republican Rep. Sam Graves, which ensures continuing six-day delivery. H.R. 30 has more than 100 co-sponsors, including Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee.
The way to strengthen the Postal Service is to improve and expand service to the American people. The USPS is a constitutionally authorized program designed to provide a communications network for public use. We can demand that this network be upgraded continuously, like any other part of our national infrastructure.
Keith A. Steffen is a retired letter carrier, newsletter editor for the National Association of Letter Carriers Capitol City Merged Branch 507, and a vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Green County. More information about postal issues can be found online at the National Association of Letter Carriers websites, nalc.org or deliveringforamerica.com. Another advocacy group, Community and Postal Workers United, can be found at cpwunited.com/home.
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