FOR THE PAST several years, Congress has hit the snooze button on U.S. Postal Service reforms. It can do so no longer: At the end of this month, the USPS will no longer be able to pay its bills.
Three pieces of legislation are pending, each offering measures to stem the Postal Service crisis, and the Obama administration has promised one of its own.
None will work unless it is based on an honest assessment of what brought the Postal Service to need this fix.
It is commonly suggested that the Postal Service would not be on the brink of bankruptcy were it not required to fund in advance its employees’ retirement benefits. True, it might not have reached this point quite so soon. But the pre-funding requirement was sensible: Unlike other government agencies, which aren’t required to pay retirement benefits in advance, the Postal Service might have trouble paying benefits down the road because mail volume has plummeted. The alternative to pre-funding now could be a government bailout of the retirement fund later.
Another suggestion is that Americans just don’t understand the value of first-class mail. Thus Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) proposes an advertising campaign extolling the benefits of letter-writing, as if that will put a halt to the transition to electronic communications.
In fact, what caused the Postal Service’s woes was its failure to acknowledge, until 2009, that the declines in mail volume were not solely a symptom of the recession and would not recover even once the U.S. economy rebounded. By the time the USPS realized what was happening, it was too late to do anything but try to stem the tide through streamlining the workforce, closing a few post offices and seeking relief from pre-funding requirements.
Promoting the virtues of print mail will not solve the underlying problem. Nor will temporarily relieving the USPS of its pre-funding obligations.
The road ahead will be far more difficult if officials fail to acknowledge that the real problem facing the Postal Service is that the service it provides is becoming obsolete. Delivering mail across the country six days a week is a costly enterprise. Any responsible discussion about the Postal Service must answer the question of whether the mail will always remain an essential government service. If it will not — as we have suggested — Congress must rethink the Postal Service’s obligation of universal service, allow it to shed retirement-eligible workers, phase out money-losing post offices in areas that can be served through other means and enable arbitrators to take USPS finances into account in collective bargaining, among other measures.
With fundamental restructuring and a serious effort to rethink the role of a postal service in a world where vital communications are increasingly electronic, taxpayers will not be left supporting a service that ratepayers no longer do. It’s time to wake up to the problem.