THE 21ST CENTURY Postal Service Act of 2011, proposed by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and passed last week by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, is not a bill to save the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
It is a bill to postpone saving the Postal Service.
The service’s announcement that it lost $5.1 billion in the most recent fiscal year was billed as good news, which suggests how dire its situation is. The only reason the loss was not greater is that Congress postponed USPS’s payment of $5.5 billion to prefund retiree health benefits. According to the Government Accountability Office, even $50 billion would not be enough to repay all of the Postal Service’s debt and address current and future operating deficits that are caused by its inability to cut costs quickly enough to match declining mail volume and revenue.
The Collins-Lieberman bill, which transfers $7 billion from the Federal Employee Retirement System to the USPS — to be used for offering buyouts to its workers and paying down debts — can stave off collapse for a short time at best.
Nor do the other measures in the bill offer much hope. The bill extends the payment schedule for the Postal Service to prefund its employee retirement benefits from 10 to 40 years. Yes, the funding requirement is onerous, but if the USPS cannot afford to pay for these benefits now, what makes it likely that it will be able to pay later, when mail volumes most likely will have plummeted further?
The bill also requires two more years of studies to determine whether a switch to five-day delivery would be viable. These studies would be performed by a regulatory body that has already completed a laborious inquiry into the subject, a process that required almost a year. This seems a pointless delay, especially given that a majority of Americans support the switch to five-day delivery.
We are sympathetic to Congress’s wish to avoid killing jobs. And the bill does include provisions we have supported — such as requiring arbitrators to take the Postal Service’s financial situation into account during collective bargaining and demanding a plan for providing mail services at retail outlets.
But this plan hits the snooze button on many of the postal service’s underlying problems. Eighty percent of the USPS’s budget goes toward its workforce; many of its workers are protected by no-layoff clauses. Seven billion dollars’ worth of buyouts may help to shrink the workforce, but this so-called overpayment will come from taxpayers’ pockets, and it is a hefty price to pay for further delay.
There is an alternative — a bill proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) that would create a supervisory body to oversee the Postal Service’s finances and, if necessary, negotiate new labor contracts. The bill, which just emerged from committee, is not perfect, but it offers a serious solution that does not leave taxpayers on the hook.