The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A glimmer of hope for common-sense, bipartisan policymaking

A U.S. Postal Service mailbox in a parking lot on Feb. 10 in Houston. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
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Much has been said about Congress’s failure to pass voting rights reform and the bulk of President Biden’s agenda in the Build Back Better Act. But at least one piece of common-sense, bipartisan policymaking is moving forward: the Postal Service Reform Act, which passed the House 342 to 92 last week.

The U.S. Postal Service has struggled with its balance sheet for years, with losses of $160 billion predicted over the next decade. It currently has more than $200 billion in liabilities, nearly three-quarters of which stem from a requirement for it to pre-fund retirees’ health-care costs. This mandate was established in 2006 when the agency was profitable, but falling revenue — largely due to competition from modern technology and declining first-class mail use — has meant the Postal Service has been unable to keep up with payments.

The overhaul bill would drop the mandate and require retirees to enroll in Medicare when eligible. The Congressional Budget Office projects this would save taxpayers $1.5 billion over 10 years. The bill would also erase $57 billion of the agency’s liabilities; establish an online dashboard for delivery times; allow it to offer non-postal services such as hunting and fishing licenses; and mandate service at least six days a week.

The legislation is a product of lengthy, bipartisan negotiations and involved compromises from various stakeholders. Some Democrats, for example, wanted to include protections for mail-in voting and funding for electric vehicles. Ultimately, a narrower bill moved through the House because it had a better chance of passing. There is an urgent need for reform: Without Congress stepping in, the Postal Service estimates it would run out of operational funds by fiscal year 2023.

This overhaul is not a panacea for all the Postal Service’s ills. It addresses the short-term concern of prepayments, but the larger question of how to make the agency financially sustainable remains. Getting rid of the pre-funding mandate will not make a practical difference to cash flow because the Postal Service has missed payments for the past decade, and traditional mail continues to decline in popularity. The six-day mandate could also deprive the Postal Service of flexibility it might need in the future. Still, the bill is a necessary step to cleaning up its balance sheet. The performance dashboard is a particularly smart reform, boosting transparency in a system that has seen heavy delays with service.

Though Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to pass the bill soon, it was delayed Monday when Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) blocked it from being brought quickly to a vote. The Senate will deliberate further, but it should not hesitate to pass the core of the current proposal once the process is complete.

The past two years have given us ample evidence of why an efficient postal system is vital to our society — not least for voting by mail and deliveries to remote communities that might not be served by pure market forces. Congress is right to finally address one source of the Postal Service’s shortfalls. Next, it should turn to the more difficult issue of its long-term viability and future.