After a stopgap measure last year, Congress will once again debate whether the United States Postal Service as we know it can survive. The better question is: Will Congress let it?
The U.S. Postal Service is at risk of defaulting on healthcare obligations or exceeding its debt limit by the end of the year. Last month, USPS management unveiled a “Path to Profitability” that would eliminate over a hundred thousand jobs, end Saturday service and loosen overnight delivery guarantees. The Postal Service also proposes to shutter thousands of post offices. “Under the existing laws, the overall financial situation for the Postal Service is poor,” says CFO Joe Corbett. Republicans have been more dire, and none more so than Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, who warned of a “crisis that is bringing USPS to the brink of collapse.”
Listening to Issa, you’d never know that the post office’s immediate crisis is largely of Congress’s own making. Conservatives aren’t wrong to say that the shift toward electronic mail – what USPS calls “e-diversion” – poses a challenge for the Postal Service’s business model. (The recent drop-off in mail is also a consequence of the recession-induced drop in advertising.)
ut even so, in the first quarter of this fiscal year, the post office would have made an operational profit, if not for a 75-year healthcare “pre-funding” mandate that applies to no other public or private institution in the United States.
The Postal Service fulfills its mandate without direct government funding. Faced with right-wing warnings about bailouts, the postal worker union this week is running a new round of TV ads reminding taxpayers that USPS is funded entirely by fees, not taxes. Guffey says the union — the largest of four representing post office workers — will likely hold rallies on next month’s Tax Day to drive home the same point.
Issa and other Republicans have been insisting for years that to stay solvent, USPS needs to make big cuts. In 2010, Issa told the postmaster general at a congressional hearing that the Postal Service has “more or less a third more people than you need. He warned in an Op-Ed that “Allowing USPS to postpone billions in obligations just makes a bailout easier.” In a December Op-Ed, Issa compared continuing Saturday mail service to “asking us to revive the Pony Express.”
Sanders is among the backers of the Postal Service Protection Act, whose recommendations are similar to the ones in the senators’ letter. Guffey says the most promising route to an acceptable compromise would be for these recommendations to be incorporated into a tri-partisan bill introduced by Sens. Joe Lieberman, Tom Carper, Susan Collins and Scott Brown.
Among USPS management’s proposed changes are a transformation of workers’ healthcare plans and the elimination of at least 155,000 jobs. USPS has already eliminated 130,00 full-time equivalent positions in the past three years. In a union contract signed in May 2011, APWU agreed to concessions in order to preserve its “no-layoff” clause; Guffey says that the Post Office’s projections, designed to make the case for further sacrifices from workers, fail to factor in savings from the concessions they’ve already agreed to. Union leaders expressed surprise last year when, within three months after signing the new contract with APWU, USPS issued white papers in support of congressional proposals to override those layoff protections. But Corbett says he believes the reduction can be accomplished through voluntary incentives.
Cutting those jobs would mean further reductions in public sector employment, including among veterans and African-Americans, who for decades have been over-represented in Postal Service ranks. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s the right time to go after veterans and their employment,” says Guffey. He wants Congress to maintain current delivery standards, which he says would save many post offices from closure.
Cuts have intangible costs as well. Interviewed for a Washington Postprofile of the endangered post office in Star Tannery, Va., one resident said, “Closing the post office would be one step toward eradicating small-town life in America.”
True to form, President Obama falls between Sanders and Issa: He would scale back the pre-funding requirement and allow postage rates to rise, but would also back the elimination of Saturday service. In an emailed statement, White House spokesperson Matt Lehrich wrote, “The President proposed a balanced plan that would return USPS to financial viability while saving taxpayers money, and Congressional action that enacts this type of balanced plan is necessary.”