Saving the Postal Service makes economic sense

Posted Dec. 13, 2011, at 3:25 p.m.

As someone who made a living for many years as a letter carrier, I read with keen interest the syndicated columns, OpEds and editorials that have appeared recently in this newspaper regarding the U.S. Postal Service. Unfortunately, essential information about the USPS’s debt crisis has not been adequately explained.

Yes, the Postal Service is in debt, but not for the reasons commonly cited. The Postal Service has actually made a profit in four of the last five years, but in 2006 Congress mandated the USPS to transfer $5.5 billion out of its operating budget every year for the next 10 years into a special fund to cover retiree health benefits for 75 years into the future. You read that correctly — 75 years.

Congress wants the USPS to cover 75 years of projected costs (for people not yet hired or not even born yet) in just 10 years, during the worst recession in 80 years which has hit hard at postal business. No other government agency or private company is required to do this.

The irrational pre-funding mandate accounts for nearly all of the Postal Service’s current debt. In its frenzied efforts to find the cash to make these unnecessary payments, the USPS has proven unable to develop a coherent business plan to meet our country’s evolving needs. Instead, it proposes to cut, downsize or dismantle key parts of its service network, especially hurting small businesses and residential customers in Maine and around the country.

The pre-funding burden must be lifted in order to maintain the Postal Service as a timely, reliable and affordable six-day-a-week universal delivery network that binds our country together, from Oahu to Eastport.

Despite inflated claims that the Internet has pushed the USPS off the map, virtually everyone depends on the Postal Service for something. On my daily rounds as a letter carrier, I delivered remittances to businesses, medicines to sick people, checks to pensioners, valuables to jewelry stores, candidate information to voters, election ballots to City Hall, passports to travelers, drivers licenses and plates to vehicle operators, cremated remains to funeral homes, gifts, cards and letters to loved ones, movies to viewers, bills to nearly everyone and I collected tubs full of outgoing mail from businesses.

Half of the country’s monthly bills are still paid through the mail. Letter carriers still deliver 170 billion pieces of mail each year. They still deliver trillions of dollars per year in financial transactions. Rural communities, the elderly and a huge percentage of Americans who do not use computers still rely on mail delivery and pickup. The Postal Service is at the center of this country’s $1.3 trillion mailing industry, which supports 7.5 million private-sector jobs.

Some members of Congress understand this and are supporting a bill that would loosen the pre-funding chokehold. H.R. 1351 has 226 co-sponsors and would cost taxpayers nothing. It would require no job or service cuts.

Others in Congress seem to be taking advantage of the crisis at the Postal Service, which they themselves manufactured, to push bills that would curtail and dismantle the Postal Service, punishing its customers and workers. One such bill, S.1789 — the 21st Century Postal Reform Act of 2011, introduced by Sen. Susan Collins and others — will not rescue the USPS, as it fails to do enough to address the root cause of the Postal Service’s woes — the unique pre-funding burden.

S.1789 would stop door-to-door delivery to 40 million households by 2015. It would authorize the shrinkage of delivery from six to five days in two years unless the USPS returns to profitability.

Yet, the pre-funding mandate guarantees continued financial losses and will therefore ensure the end of six-day delivery in 2014. This would slow down mail delivery and undermine the Postal Service’s role in parcel delivery — the fastest growing part of the postal industry. It would also eliminate 80,000 good full- and part-time postal jobs.

Shouldn’t Congress focus on preserving good jobs right now, instead of needlessly eliminating them? As the nation’s largest employer of veterans, any downsizing of the Postal Service would add to an already severe jobs crisis for veterans coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is some good news coming from the Senate. The bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders on Nov. 10 (S.1853 — the Postal Service Protection Act) would repeal the pre-funding mandate and give the Postal Service access to the overpayments it has made into its pension accounts. It protects six-day mail delivery and encourages innovation such as allowing the Postal Service to generate revenue through nonpostal channels, for example, providing notary services or issuing licenses.

For the past six years, postal workers, specifically letter carriers, have been named the most trusted federal employees. Congress members rank at the bottom in that same poll. Perhaps they can restore some of their credibility by acting quickly to fix the mess they created. This would allow the postal community to get to work to modernize and adapt its business to better serve America.

To keep abreast of factual information regarding this issue, visit savethepostoffice.com and saveamericaspostoffice.com.

John Curtis retired from the Ellsworth Post Office earlier this year. He lives in Surry.

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