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Letters and red ink at the U.S. Postal Service

United States Postal Service Letter Carrier Lakesha Dortch-Hardy delivers mail in Chicago in this file photo taken November 29, 2012.
JOHN GRESS | REUTERS
United States Postal Service Letter Carrier Lakesha Dortch-Hardy delivers mail in Chicago in this file photo taken November 29, 2012.
Posted April 16, 2013, at 3:27 p.m.

The U.S. Postal Service faces a financial death spiral. Burdened by excess infrastructure, outmoded regulations and high labor costs USPS posted an operating loss of $15.9 billion in fiscal 2012 and is on course to lose an estimated $7.9 billion in fiscal 2013, according to President Barack Obama’s newly issued budget.

Postal Service management has declared that, on “any rational analysis,” it cannot escape this predicament without curtailing Saturday delivery, which would save an estimated $2 billion per year. The Obama administration supports five-day delivery.

Yet last week the Postal Service gave up on its plan to end Saturday mail delivery, citing congressional resistance. Rational analysis gets you only so far on Capitol Hill. What really counts is interest-group pressure. And the groups that live off the mail — advertisers, postal unions and paper companies, among others — put the squeeze on strategically positioned members of the House and Senate.

Now it’s anyone’s guess how USPS will avoid an expensive taxpayer bailout. The Obama budget includes a plan that usefully advocates both an end to Saturday delivery and an above-inflation rate hike. In return, the administration offers the Postal Service a reduction in the current requirement that it pre-fund retiree health benefits.

The letter carriers’ union president griped that Obama did not eliminate the health care pre-funding entirely and said cutting Saturday delivery is “plain wrong.”

Actually, despite its positive features, Obama’s plan is nowhere near the radical overhaul that USPS needs. Of the Postal Service’s $71 billion in projected costs for fiscal 2013, personnel pay and benefits accounts for $56 billion — 79 percent. Yet its 568,000 employees continue to enjoy a no-layoff clause and contribute less to their health-care benefits than do other federal employees.

The “stakeholders” — a.k.a. postal interest groups — are the problem. Unless and until their competing demands are changed, reconciled or overruled, Congress will remain deadlocked, postal reform will remain a non-starter and billions of taxpayer dollars will remain at risk.

The Washington Post (April 15)

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