TO MOST Americans, Sunday's postage rate change may seem like a simple bureaucratic decision, but to many postal executives it marks the end to a slow, laborious, sometimes arcane process that lasted 11 months and still left a number of issues unresolved.
So when the new rates finally were announced last week, San Francisco businessman Robert Setrakian, a member of the Postal Service Board of Governors since 1985, had a simple suggestion. Why not simplify the process and let the governors, nine presidential appointees, set the rates on their own?
In reality, it's already happening. In one of the anomalies of federal law, the board of governors are allowed to set a series of important postage rates -- those governing international mail. The independent Postal Rate Commission, the panel of five presidential appointees who are empowered to set domestic mail rates, has no power over the $1.2 billion in revenue the Postal Service raises from international mail.
For that stamp collectors probably should be happy. Instead of having to wait months for new stamps to cover revised international rates, the service is quickly able to produce a stamp for a proposed rate that is almost certain to be implemented.
That's what will happen later this month when the United States issues its first commemorative of the year, a 50-cent stamp that just happens to meet the new international airmail rate that becomes effective Sunday. Postal officials say it was a coincidence, but they concede they selected the 50-cent denomination for the stamp because it was the most likely new airmail rate. That was a risk too great to take with the first-class rate, so the service issues non-denominated "letter stamps," such as the new F stamp, for domestic mail.
Officially, the new 50-cent stamp marks the 700th anniversary of Switzerland and will be a joint issue with Switzerland on Feb. 22. The Swiss are releasing an almost identical stamp in the capital of Bern the same day.
Designed by Hans Hartman of Switzerland, the stamps feature stylized drawings of the U.S. Capitol and the Federal Palace -- the Swiss Parliament building in Bern -- set against a blue background. The major change between the two stamps is that the U.S. stamp shows more of the Capitol because it is a slightly larger stamp.
The Swiss have gone much further than the Americans in eliminating lettering from their stamp. It carries only the name of the country, "Helvetia," its 1.60 Swiss franc value and the dates "1291-1991." There is no identification of the U.S. Capitol or indication as to why America is saluting the country's 700th-anniversary celebration.
The U.S. stamp, carries the lettering "50 USA" in the upper left and "Switzerland Founded 1291" in the lower left. It also does not offer any explanation of why the Capitol is included in the stamp, an omission that could leave some Americans wondering whether Switzerland happens to have a building that strangely resembles the Capitol.
Unlike most previous airmail commemoratives, the American stamp will not carry the wording "USA Airmail," a decision that postal officials said was prompted by some uncertainity over whether the governors would agree on the 50-cent airmail rate. Even if they hadn't, the service said it would expect a big demand for 50-cent stamps and ordered 100 million of them printed by the photogravure process by American Bank Note Co.
The stamps will be released Feb. 22 in Washington during 11 a.m. ceremonies at the Swiss Embassy, 2900 Cathedral Ave. NW.
ONE OF THE little-known perks of being Secretary of the Treasury is that the U.S. Mint's sculptors produce a bronze medal bearing your image for sale to the nation's coin and medal collectors. Nicholas F. Brady, who became the 68th Secretary of the Treasury on Sept. 15, 1988, got his medal last month.
Three-inch copies of the medal are now available by mail from the Mint at a cost of $21 each. Edgar Z. Steever,a sculptor/engraver at the Mint in Philadelphia, did Brady's portrait on the observe. The reverse features the department's flag and carries the date Brady took office. Orders should be sent to U.S. Mint, Order Processing Branch, 10001 Aerospace Dr., Lanham, MD 20706. For more information, call 301/436-7400.
BLOCKED by a trade embargo from selling its stamps in the United States, South Africa has decided to give some away to U.S. collectors. The South African Tourism Board has announced that it will give away "a limited number" of first-day covers bearing four newly issued stamps promoting tourism to collectors who write the board at 747 Third Ave., 20th Floor, New York, NY 10017.
INDIVIDUALS wishing to secure first-day cancellations of the Swiss stamps may either prepare their own envelopes with stamps purchased after Feb. 23 at their local post office or request postal workers to affix the stamps on up to 50 envelopes at a price of 50 cents per stamp. Collectors who purchase their stamps should mail their envelopes to: Customer-Affixed Envelopes, Switzerland Stamp, Postmaster, 900 Brentwood Rd. NE, Washington, DC 20066-9991. Requests for postal workers to affix the U.S. stamp should go to: Switzerland Stamp, Postmaster, 900 Brentwood Rd. NE, Washington, DC 20066-9992. Workers will place both the U.S. and Swiss stamps onto envelopes at a price of $1.75 for each envelope at: Switzerland Stamp Combination Cover, Postmaster, 900 Brentwood Rd. NE, Washington, DC 20066-9996. All requests should be postmarked by May 23.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.