Postal Service desperate for good ideas to end run of bad news

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The main thing the U.S. Postal Service delivers these days is bad news, gloom and doom about its financial condition. To paraphrase "Born Under a Bad Sign," a blues tune written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell, "if it wasn't for bad news, the Postal Service wouldn't have no news at all."

The news is so bad that the wise ones in Congress decided they would need a relatively rare joint hearing of House members and senators to consider the thoughts of those directly affected by the Postal Service's $7 billion projected loss for this fiscal year.

"Having Their Say: Customer and Employee Views on the Future of the Postal Service" is the name of Wednesday's hearing, which will bring together the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the Postal Service and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel on federal services.

The most novel suggestion in testimony submitted in advance comes from Louis Atkins, executive vice president of the National Association of Postal Supervisors. He wants the Postal Service to be more like the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Postal Service, he said, "lacks the vision, resources and know-how" to "generate additional revenue in innovative ways," products and services "that expand the definition of 'mail.' " He thinks that the Postal Service should follow the CIA's lead in tapping new technologies. Atkins offered as an example In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit firm the CIA started in 1999 that partners with companies to develop intelligence-gathering technologies.

"The Postal Service needs it own In-Q-Tel to achieve the same leverage that connects technology advances to improvements in communications, including going beyond hard-copy mail itself," Atkins said.

Perhaps that idea holds promise for the long run, but Congress is trying to find a way to help the Postal Service out of the deep hole it's in now. Much of the attention has focused on its proposal to drop Saturday delivery, a plan that members of Congress would hate to approve.

Unions representing Postal Service employees certainly want no part of it. "We should not even engage in serious discussion of this proposal," said William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union. "No service-oriented business can grow by reducing service."

Nonetheless, it is a serious proposal, one that the Postal Service says would save $3.1 billion annually.

That savings would come on the backs of many rural postal employees, according to Don Cantriel, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association. He predicted there would be no need for most of the 53,000 part-time substitute rural letter carriers under a five-day delivery scheme.

"Tens of thousands of rural carrier relief employees will be without a job, without a livelihood," he said. ". . . Our people need not be sacrificed this way."

Interestingly, opposition to five-day delivery is not shared by some companies that depend on the mail to deliver their products. Netflix, which takes pride in getting DVD movies to customers quickly, for example, is willing to support cutting a delivery day if it helps to stabilize the Postal Service financially. The company thinks its customers could live happy and productive lives without getting films on Saturday.

"We believe that those subscribers who currently rely upon Saturday delivery to receive and watch movies on the weekend would adjust their rental habits . . . and would plan their rental selections around the fact that mail would not arrive on Saturday," said Andrew Rendich, Netflix's chief service and DVD operations officer.

Five-day delivery isn't the only way the Postal Service is looking to save money. It has already cut full-time equivalent positions by 120,000 since 2008. But that's not enough. "Quite simply, the business model is broken, and laws, regulations and contracts must be changed to provide commercial operating flexibility needed for financial stability," Joseph Corbett, the Postal Service's chief financial officer, said last month.

Congress provided partial relief last year when it deferred $4 billion of a roughly $5.5 billion payment the Postal Service must come up with annually to prepay retiree health benefits. But that was a one-shot deal. The agency and its unions have urged Congress to change the way those benefits are funded.

The Postal Service inspector general said the agency overpaid $75 billion into the Civil Service Retirement System from 1972 to 2009. Getting that money back would make the Postal Service fat and happy. But where is Congress going to get that kind of money, even if the agency was cheated out of it?

The bad news keeps on coming. As Corbett said: "We are still experiencing unsustainable losses."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company