by Mark Scheinbaum
May 4, 2012
THIS HIGH SCHOOL 'SIGNING DAY' IS FOR THE ACADEMIC STARS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The U.S. Postal Service is in a crisis.
How many times have you heard that in the past year?
But the crisis is not due to people using email, instead of writing letters.
It's not due to people paying their bills online, instead putting a check in the mail.
And it's not because the Postal Service is an obsolete relic whose time has passed.
It is a crisis that has been purely manufactured by Congress, and if Congress has its way, the Postal Service will not survive.
Aside from my Senator, Bernie Sanders, few in Congress put up much of a fight to protect the Postal Service from cuts that will cripple and ultimately kill it.
The Postal Service last generated a profit in 2006. It hasn't since then. The lingering effects of the recession, which has reduced mail volume, have played a part. And yes, technology has played a part, too.
But the biggest reason why the Postal Service has not turned a profit is the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.
A lame duck Republican Congress passed this legislation late in 2006. It requires the Postal Service to fund its retiree health benefit obligations 75 years into the future, and to do it within 10 years.
In a letter sent to Sanders, Postal Service Inspector General David C. Williams wrote that the prefunding of the Postal Service's pension and health care benefits "significantly exceeded" the funding levels of organizations in both public and private sectors.
"Using ratepayer funds, it has built a war chest of over $326 billion to address its future liabilities. This is a astonishingly high figure for a company with such a large employee base."
While the Postal Service is currently over 100 percent funded in its pension funds, Williams wrote that by comparison, the federal government is funded at a much lower 42 percent level, and the military at 27 percent. The average Fortune 1000 pension plan is funded at 80 percent, while only 6 percent of those plans are 100 percent funded.
Again, no other government agency has to do this. No private corporation is doing this. But the Postal Service is forced to set aside $5.5 billion every year into its future retiree health benefits fund.
This enormous burden is why the Postal Service is having financial trouble, and the proposed remedy for this is ending Saturday deliveries, lengthening first-class delivery times, shutting down bulk-mail processing centers, and laying off as many as 250,000 postal workers.
Sen. Sanders won a temporary reprieve for the facilities' target for closure, but that will expire on May 15. If Congress allows these cuts to take place, the Postal Service will likely begin its final descent into the grave, and rural America will be hit the hardest.
Where I live, at the end of a dirt road in a small town in Vermont, the Postal Service is the most reliable communications service going. Broadband Internet and cell phone service is spotty, and FedEx and UPS dread coming up my road. But every day, our mail arrives.
In a small town, the post office is a community hub. It is also essential for the delivery of goods that you can't get through a computer. From Netflix discs to medicine, from magazines and newspapers to parcels and packages, the Postal Service still delivers when others can't or won't. For people who, by choice or circumstance, don't have computers or cars, it is how they interact with the world.
Despite the competition from the Internet and private parcel shippers such as UPS and FedEx, the USPS delivers 40 percent of the world's mail to 150 million addresses in the United States. For 45 cents, I can send a letter from Vermont to any address east of the Mississippi River and have it arrive in two business days; it will arrive in only three business days to an address on the West Coast.
Conservatives in Congress have long pushed for the end of the USPS in favor of putting your first- and third-class mail service in the hands of private competitors. For rural areas, it means paying more money for slower, less-frequent service. People would have to drive longer distances to send or receive parcels. And it would likely mean the end of universal service, as authorized by the Constitution.
For the past four decades, the USPS has operated as an independent government agency that is supposed to be self-supporting. And because it has a monopoly on first- and third-class ("standard") mail, the postal service is obligated to provide universal service six days a week to every corner of the nation.
Our nation's postal system was not designed to be profitable. It was designed to serve the public. It was designed to serve all America, all the time. Under federal law, the USPS "shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining."
The law also says, "No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services be ensured to residents of both urban and rural communities."
The idea of the federal government providing a service for the public good is not fashionable right now in Washington. But universal mail service is a public good, and in many parts of America, including Vermont, it is essential. It needs to be preserved.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.