Keep Mail First Class

Posted Jan. 05, 2010, at 5:20 p.m.

Don’t take it too seriously if the postmaster general resumes his warning that he wants to cut out mail service on Saturday. It could be a replay of what’s known as the “Washington Monument syndrome.”

Back in the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whenever his secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, found his annual appropriation in trouble, he would threaten to close the Washington Monument, always a favorite of visitors throughout the country. That would cause a huge outcry, Congress would increase the appropriation, and the monument would remain open.

The U.S. Postal Service is one of the few federal agencies explicitly authorized by the Constitution. In 1971, it was reorganized as an independent government-owned agency intended to be self-sufficient, like private businesses. It has been mostly paying its way by selling stamps and other services.

But, like other businesses, it has been hit hard by the current recession. It also faces reduced mail volume from the turn to cell phones, e-mail, Twitter and text messaging, and parcel-delivery competition from FedEx and UPS.

Postmaster General John E. Potter has been closing postal stations and branches, shortening hours, and reducing the work force. He has repeatedly mentioned eliminating deliveries on Saturday, while leaving post offices and post office boxes open as on other days. That would require a change in federal law, removing an annual appropriation bill rider first added in 1983 that requires the Postal Service to deliver mail six days each week.

In August, Mr. Potter told a congressional subcommittee, “I think that we’ve reached a breaking point with the recession, and that’s why we’re seeking to go from six- to five-day delivery.” Several members said their constituents wouldn’t like that, and Sen. Susan Collins told him, “The Postal Service cannot expect to gain more business, which it desperately needs, if it is reducing service.”

She was right and could have gone further. Of course the Postal Service is a business, a $65 billion business, as Mr. Potter calls it, the largest retail presence in America, “with more outlets than McDonald’s Wal-Mart, and Starbucks combined.”

Beyond that, the small post offices in Maine’s rural areas and offshore islands, some facing elimination, are valued meeting places and anchors of community life. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that “the use of the mails is almost as much a part of free speech as the right to use their tongues.”

Mr. Potter should take a look at the motto engraved on his Washington headquarters building: “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor gloom of night can stay these swift couriers from the completion of their appointed rounds.” And add to that: nor difficult economic times.

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