The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Petition on White House site supports bill to save Postal Service

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As letter carriers around the country collect food for their 21st annual Stamp Out Hunger campaign, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is encouraging people to sign a petition for the White House to show their support for legislation to help save the U.S. Postal Service.

It’s not a common move for a congressman to post a petition on the White House “We the People” Web site, but DeFazio’s action may be “a strategy to get the president more engaged with saving the postal service,” according to The Nation.

The petition needs 100,000 signatures by May 23; so far more than 20,000 people have signed it.

Support for the nation’s beleaguered Postal Service can’t come too soon. And it won’t come from tax revenue. In fact, the USPS became a quasi-governmental agency in 1970 and has not received tax money since then. Your taxes do not pay your letter carrier’s salary.

DeFazio has sponsored HR 630 Postal Service Protection Act of 2013. It’s designed to rid the USPS of burdensome prefunding requirements that have put it “in a financial death spiral,” the congressman writes on his Web site. “Over 70% of USPS financial losses are due to a Congressional mandate to prefund retiree healthcare for future employees for the next 75 years. This requires the post office to prefund the healthcare of future employees that have not yet been born.”

That’s right. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 requires the USPS to prefund retiree health care benefits for employees who aren’t even alive. As DeFazio wrote, “This is stupid and unacceptable.”

You don’t have to be an economist to understand why 2006 was the last year the USPS made a profit — of $900 million. Then the ink turned red. On Friday, the Postal Service announced second-quarter losses of $1.9 billion.

Some believe the 2006 Republican-backed legislation was designed to bankrupt the USPS and send the nation’s postal service into privatization. If nothing’s done, the mailman may go the way of the milkman.

Maybe that’s as it should be, some will argue. People do seem to love to hate the postal service.

Obviously DeFazio disagrees — as do the 140 co-sponsors, so far, of his bill. That legislation would also establish a Chief Innovation Officer along with a Postal Innovation Advisory Commission to look for new sources of revenue and lift the prohibition against mailing wine or beer sent by a licensed winery or brewery.

The USPS handles 40 percent of the world’s mail — that’s 160 billion pieces a year — and delivers to more than 152 million addresses. It costs the same for a first-class stamp whether your letter is going across town or will be carried by a mule train down an 8-mile trail to the Havasupai Indians at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Yes, I sound like a commercial for the Postal Service, but my father worked as a letter carrier for more than 30 years in northwest Missouri. I saw his relationship with his patrons. And there’s something intangible about the mail that goes beyond numbers and profit margins, something that can’t be measured.

There’s the sense of community in the small towns where the post office is the only federal building — and often the only community gathering place. There’s the contents of the mail — prescription medications that people depend on — and newspapers — for those without the Internet (yes, they’re out there). And there’s the letter carrier’s smile and a few words of conversation with shut-ins and the elderly.

During his 33-year career, my dad rescued two women who had fallen and broken their hips. One of them waited two days to hear his step on the front porch. Now there’s the Carrier Alert Program to monitor the disabled and the elderly. Letter carriers work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and with Homeland Security. Last Saturday, Manchester, N.H. letter carrier Tom Sapienza ran into a burning building looking for anyone who might be trapped by a fire — then he returned to delivering the mail.

Do we really want to lose the Postal Service? DeFazio’s bill seems like a no-brainer. It would allow the USPS to remain competitive by finding new sources of revenue. It won’t take our tax dollars. And it would help save jobs.

What’s not to like?