Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe sounded a warning to Congress this week about a bill that would provide a short-term bailout for the U.S. Postal Service. Losses would continue, and the service would be back again in a few years asking for more, he said.
Well of course it would.
The Postal Service is a unique operation in that the Constitution specifically mentions it and gives Congress the power "to establish post offices and post roads." It clearly serves a function in facilitating commerce and the receipt of payments, as well as allowing delivery to, or at least near, every address. However, the manner and scope of delivery is not spelled out and was a source of controversy even to the Founders, and certainly it was not envisioned as an office that would lose billions of dollars a year without making significant reforms.
Earlier this week the Senate passed a bill that would give $11 billion to the service for buyouts and early retirement incentives, hoping to alleviate one of its biggest expenses — personnel costs. But the bill's total price tag is $33.6 billion. It would, among other things, delay for at least two years the elimination of one day of delivery each week (Tuesdays or Saturdays had been mentioned as likely candidates) and would keep it from closing unneeded postal facilities.
It would, in other words, ignore the changes that are desperately needed in an agency that loses about $25 million each day and has an accumulated debt of more than $13 billion.
The Postal Service is indeed the victim of some personnel problems that would kill a private business. For example, its union contract prohibits layoffs. It is a bigger victim, however, of a digital revolution that has changed the way Americans communicate, and of private courier services that duplicate many of its services. Many small businesses still rely on the Postal Service for billings and receivables, but a private-sector structure seems to be in place to absorb this if the service had to cut back.
Postal officials had proposed closing up to 3,700 post offices and more than 220 mail processing plants. The Senate bill would make it harder to do this. A House version, meanwhile, would set up a board similar to the Defense Department's base-closure commission to determine which facilities to close. While that system is meant to be non-political, it would needlessly drag out a process that postal officials likely could do quickly on their own based on data concerning usage and need.
The Postal Service traditionally has had trouble making changes, dating back at least to when it ceased Sunday delivery in 1912. In 1957 it tried to end Saturday deliveries, only to be overruled by a Congress that was receiving complaints from voters.
This time, however, taxpayers shouldn't be expected to continue bailing out a quasi-governmental service that is in desperate need of radical reforms. Some of the Senate bill's provisions for reducing personnel and pension costs may be wise, but this isn't the time to keep kicking other cutbacks down the road.