Don’t ever tell me that the Post Office is beyond saving. I obsess over policy details and that’s one of my biggest pet peeves since everyone, no matter their political orientation, seems to believe that email has succeeded in killing the USPS. Is it true that the internet has been removing the need for day-to-day letters, messages, or basic communication? Yes. Is it true that the frequency of postal runs made by most Americans is declining? Absolutely. Are these the only causes of the USPS’ current financial straights? Absolutely not.
In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act that required the USPS to make annual payments for future employee benefits 75 years in advance. If that sounds strange at all, it’s because it is. We vacillate between treating the USPS like a government agency and a private business but there is no other entity out there, public or private, that has such a ridiculous financing requirement. A study done in 2012 noted that without the requirement, the USPS would have posted a $1.5 billion surplus that year instead of a deficit that forced it to consider closing thousands of sites across the country. To add insult to injury, a GAO analysis found that the USPS doesn’t even have the legal authority to alter it’s own budgets or operations without Congressional approval.
Remember last year’s near-cancellation of Saturday postal delivery? Congress eventually ensured that the deliveries would continue but in a way that was almost cruel; the only reason the USPS ever considered ending Saturday delivery was because Congress had left it with no other options to address its routine monetary shortfalls in the first place. Keeping Saturday delivery is an excellent idea only if we agree to pay the costs. The longer this continues, we are going to see more funding crises, increased postage price hikes, and even more closings and layoffs.
These cutbacks aren’t without noticeable effect. For most of us in the city, the most we’ll notice is an inconvenient hike in stamp prices. But there’s a hidden side to this story. The Post Office is still the most reliable means of long-distance communication for those living without internet connection. A sizable chunk of them are in rural areas where many of the marginal closings are being planned or executed. Unsurprisingly, the cuts, like most austerity measures, disproportionately affect these lower-income earners.
What then must be done to address this crisis? Well for one thing, policy-making institutions have to understand that the USPS cannot be expected to act as an independent entity with all the numerous financial and legal restrictions placed upon it. Repealing the completely arbitrary payment plan requirement is a definite first step. Giving the USPS more authority over its own decision-making is another. But what then? The increasing reliance on internet communication does affect the postal service (even if its not to the degree that most people think). Senator Bernie Sanders (I), along with a number of democratic cosponsors introduced Postal Modernization measures that, in addition to scrapping the 2006 mandate, gave the Postal Service the ability to pursue a number of other operations including notarization, issuing hunting licenses, allowing alcoholic shipments, and a number of innovative changes that allow the Postal Service and its customers to better adapt to internet activity.
The bill’s premise is clear; the Postal Service is still one of the most common agencies that most Americans deal with in their day-to-day lives. If the Postal Service wishes to stay competitive, increasing its activity set is a must. For that however, we need political will.
For Part 2, I’l go into more detail about the kinds of proposals this could entail, including one introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren that was actually used in the 20th century with much success, Postal Savings Banks.
Till next time!