The U.S. Postal Service has decided to eliminate Saturday mail delivery because, as the postmaster general says, the agency's financial condition is "urgent." Actually, the condition has been urgent for more than a decade, and the cutback won't accomplish much beyond a relatively minor reduction in operating costs.
The situation confronting the Postal Service isn't complicated. Its balance sheet is a horrendous mess, and a few tweaks here and there to its delivery schedules only pushes more draconian action just slightly down the road — perhaps delaying a declaration of insolvency by a few months or years.
The problem — and any possible solution — lies with Congress, which in its current palsy has been unable to take even baby steps toward addressing the issue in any small way. Nothing short of a top-to-bottom overhaul can put the service on sound footing, and it appears unlikely that will happen any time soon.
So, we can expect the agency founded by Benjamin Franklin to continue to limp gamely along, albeit on fewer days a week, while continuing to hemorrhage dollars — about 16 billion of them just last year.
That's real money by the way — an amount you think would command the attention of a Congress full of members who went to Washington promising to take along a fistful of fiscal toughness.
A bipartisan overhaul plan surfaced in the Senate last year but has languished since. Perhaps the elimination of Saturday delivery may ignite a new discussion about reparative legislation and put it higher on the Congressional agenda, or perhaps not.
An impediment lies in the fact that powerful postal worker unions hold sway over influential members of Congress which, in the midst of the agency's financial swoon, ordered the service pay $5.5 billion a year for health benefits to future retirees — a requirement imposed on no other agency.
It's just such actions that cause some to wonder whether those who oversee the Postal Service are living in the real world. It may not be entirely fair to expect the service to operate as a private business, but in its current state it bears no resemblance to any form of sustainable commerce in a competitive marketplace.
To keep mail delivery as Americans long have enjoyed it would almost inevitably require some public subsidy. But the public shouldn't stand for that sort of solution, especially with the Postal Service as it currently is organized. The service has been increasing its costs to consumers by raising the price of its stamps, while at the same time watching its demand for service plummet. It continues to operate with gigantic deficits while shoring up its employee benefit packages. The longer Americans see that spiral continue, the easier it becomes to accept the possibility of abolishing the service altogether. The Constitution grants Congress the power to establish post offices, but it isn't required to do so. Still, it makes sense for national security purposes to have an official delivery system whose safety and reliability are protected by law.
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While many Americans rely on email and texts to keep in touch with loved ones, too many people and businesses continue to rely on hand-to-door mail delivery, especially for parcels or printed publications. But if it remains in the nation's best interests to keep the Postal Service up and running, the operation must do much better at sustaining itself.
The suspension of Saturday letter delivery is a step too small, taken too late. The question now is whether it might jump-start a process of meaningful reform, or if it is just the first in a series of successive amputations that will slowly reduce the Postal Service's "appointed rounds" to fewer times and fewer places.