The United States Postal Service is not broke.
It does not need to be downsized. Post offices do not need to be closed. Sorting centers do not need to be shuttered. Saturday service does not need to be scrapped. And hundreds of thousands of jobs in rural regions and urban neighborhoods do not need to be cut in a time of economic instability.
Yet, this week, the US Senate is debating about whether to advance a scheme that would begin a process of downsizing that—while not so immediately draconian as the plan advanced by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrel Issa (R-CA)—accepts the notion that the postal service’s future is one of closures and cuts. Ultimately, that downsizing points the postal in a direction where privatization could be inevitable.
But that does not have to be the case.
National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando is right when he says: “Nothing is inevitable about the so-called decline of the U.S. Postal Service.”
What is real, however, is the threat.
Republican leaders in Congress have made proposals for dismembering the US Postal Service by cutting the number of delivery days, shuttering processing centers so that it will take longer for letters to arrive, closing thousands of rural and inner-city post offices and taking additional steps that would dramatically downsize one of the few national programs ordained by the original draft of the US Constitution. That scheme won’t be implemented by this Congress. But a half-step in that direction could be made.
Supposedly “centrist” US Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) have developed a series of proposals they describe as a “bipartisan consensus” for a death by slower cuts.
Their “21st Century Postal Service Act,” the latest variation on a supposed compromise now being weighed by the Senate, would still move the postal service toward the closing of hundreds of mail processing centers, the shuttering of thousands of post offices, delays in mail delivery and a pressuring of consumers toward more expensive private-sector services. It is, says National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando, “a classic case of ‘killing the Post-Office in order to save it.’ ”
Republicans, and those Democrats who side with them on this issue, hold that radical surgery is necessary because the postal service is in financial crisis.
Earlier this year, however, we learned that the pre-funding requirements have taken so much money from the USPS that—according to the postal service’s own inspector general—it has “significantly exceeded” the level of reserved money that the federal government or private corporations divert to meet future pension and retiree healthcare demands. “Using ratepayer funds, it has built a war chest of over $326 billion to address its future liabilities,” acknowledges Postal Service Inspector General David C. Williams.
That, US Senator Bernie Sanders argued at the time, put “the rationale for postal cuts in doubt.”
Sanders, who has taken the lead in challenging cuts to the USPS and who requested the assessment by Williams, says that on the basis of information contained in the assessment, the Postal Service should be released from the “onerous and unprecedented burden” of being forced to put $5.5 billion every year into its future retiree health benefits fund. Sanders’s office explains that “even if there are no further contributions from the post office, and if the fund simply collects 3.5 to 4 percent interest every year, that account will be fully funded in twenty-one years.” At the same time, the senator suggests, the postal service should be allowed to recover more than $13 billion in overpayments it has made to a federal retirement systems.
That’s not the end of the debate about the future of the postal service. Along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sanders is working with key Senate Democrats—and, the group hopes, some Republicans who represent rural states—to develop amendments, and potential alternatives, to the “21st Century Postal Service Act.” Not only would they get the accounting right, they would remove barriers to the USPS so that it can compete and grow.
The Senate should embrace it—not the slash-and-burn proposals of Republican leaders, nor the slower slash-and-burn proposals of supposed centrists.