The Constitution of the United States, in Article I, Section 8, recognizes the importance in a democratic society of interpersonal communication: “The Congress shall have power to … establish post offices and post roads … “. But the United States Post Office operations, under varied names, predate the Constitution by many years; Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775 during the Second continental Congress. Currently the United States Postal Service (USPS) is legally obligated to provide uniform service at uniform rates to all U.S. residents no matter where they live.
I know that my next statement will be controversial, as the USPS has been a favorite target of many comedians and professional curmudgeons for many decades. However, the USPS has been providing excellent mail service for relatively low cost to its customers for most of its 238 years. Anyone who has dealt with postal facilities and services in other countries will have to admit that the United States system is among the best. It delivers mail quickly and reliably to and from an incredibly wide variety of locations separated by extreme distance and/or topographical variations and maintains more than 30,000 local post offices. Surveys have found that the USPS has been, for years, the most trusted federal agency. So the question is, why are Republicans in the U.S. Congress hell bent on tearing such an exemplary system down?
The GOP attack is not new. In 1971 the USPS was converted from a cabinet-level government agency to an “independent establishment of the executive branch”. It reserved a monopoly on the delivery of first-class and third-class mail, but not on the much more lucrative delivery of parcels, in which USPS now competes with private companies such as UPS and FedEx. Congress chose to control USPS revenue by requiring the “establishment” to be self-supporting and by retaining ultimate veto power over changes in postal rates. The 1971 Postal Reorganization Act has been viewed as “partial privatization” of the USPS, one early step on the road favored by the right.
In the decades preceding and following 1971, conservative voices have repeatedly called for full privatization of mail delivery, with all the service functions of local post offices being taken over by retail stores. You have to wonder how delusional people have to be to assume that a delivery system that is supposedly deep in red ink (more on that later) could be turned over to private businesses, which would be expected to provide the same level and breadth of service without significantly raising postal rates but would want to extract a profit of at least ten percent of gross revenue. Admittedly, some conservatives have recognized that the long-term principles of universal delivery and uniform rates may have to be sacrificed to achieve this goal. But only market conservatives, with their mistaken mantra that private operations are always significantly more efficient than public ones, could even entertain such an idea. Unfortunately these people have an inordinate influence on public policy in the United States.
The peak effort of conservative actions against the USPS, thus far, was the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, passed by a GOP-controlled Congress and signed by GOP President Bush. This act requires the USPS to pre-fund retirement health care benefits for the next 75 years, a demand that has cost the USPS about 5 billion dollars a year. No other government or private entity has been forced to do the same—and my guess is that the same GOP representatives would be screaming for instant redress if the government had tried to impose even half that requirement on any company. Without the large deficit imposed by excessive retirement funding, the USPS has actually produced small surpluses through most of the years since 2006, remaining in the black despite the severe recession that began in 2007.
So why did the Republicans apply the pre-fund requirement? The answer is indicated in part by the Ross-Issa Postal Reform Act of 2011 (RIPRA), a proposal that has bounced up again and again with strong conservative support. The RIPRA would encourage the USPS to eliminate Saturday mail delivery and to close “redundant” post offices and “excess” mail processing facilities. It would magnanimously allow the retirement pre-funding payments to be reduced. The existing large fund surplus which has been built up by previous excess payments could be diverted to future efforts to reduce the size of the postal workforce. So in return for taking away the unnecessary demands imposed by the GOP in 2006, the GOP would magnanimously give the USPS the ability to drastically slash the number of people it employs. Note that this fits in neatly with the overall conservative campaign to reduce the size and power of unions in the United States, in this case the large American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Union. We might also note that privatization would go even further toward this goal.
But the RIPRA has much more. It states that if the USPS falls behind on any of its bills (including, of course, the overpayment required by the GOP) by more than 30 days, USPS management would be automatically replaced by a receivership-style authority with an explicit mandate to cut costs. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has repeatedly expressed his desire to get rid of the postmaster general and the USPS board of governors. This bill is his latest vehicle for achieving this long-held conservative goal.
Fortunately there is an alternative.
The Postal Service Protection Act (S. 316, H.R. 630) has gained 20 senators and 120 representatives as co-sponsors. This bill would, if passed, immediately end the 2006 retirement pre-fund mandate, protect six-day delivery, restore overnight delivery standards to keep mail processing facilities open, help protect existing post offices from closure, and allow the USPS to develop new products and services to build new revenue. Some of the additional services that have been mentioned are lockboxes, digital products and internet-connection services, and resumption of the postal banking system.
Unfortunately, with the existing composition of our Congress, this bill is unlikely to make it to the president’s desk for his signature any time before the 2014 elections–yet another reason to support pro-union candidates.