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Published: Thursday, 8/2/2012

Deliver on mail crisis

Congress can help fix the U.S. Postal Service's fiscal problems. It could start by eliminating, or at least modifying, rules adopted by lawmakers in 2006 that require the Postal Service to prefund 75 years of future retiree health benefits within a decade, an onerous burden shared by no other government agency.

More than 80 percent of the Postal Service's mounting debt -- now climbing at an estimated $25 million a day -- is attributed to that obligation. It is no surprise the Postal Service defaulted on a $5.5 billion payment for future health benefits due this week, and said it won't be able to make a $5.6 billion payment due in September.

Conservatives pushed for accelerated health-benefit payments six years ago to promote fiscal austerity. But it's foolhardy to stand by those rules as the nation's mail system goes bankrupt. Congress cannot let that happen.

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First-class mail volume is down 25 percent since 2006. The decline is expected to continue, at least in the short term. Yet millions of Americans still rely on the nation's postal-delivery system for prescription drugs, important documents, and account statements, even when they do most of their correspondence by email or choose to pay some bills online.

Patchwork reprieves, such as one the Senate approved in the spring, aren't sustainable. The Senate bill provided $11 billion of buyouts and early-retirement incentives. That saved thousands of Postal Service jobs at regional mail-processing centers, including 338 at the South St. Clair Street center in Toledo, for at least two years. It also saved jobs at the nation's 3,700 rural post offices, including 30 post offices in northwest Ohio and Michigan's Monroe and Lenawee counties.

But what happens after February, 2014, is anyone's guess. For now, the fate of rural post offices has been guarded by rural lawmakers up for re-election. But more downsizing is inevitable. Nearly half of the 461 regional centers are expected to close within a few years, 140 of them within the next seven months.

The Postal Service needs to become leaner and more efficient, but through a systematic approach. At the same time, it should be allowed to offer more income-generating services.

A 2011 report to the Postal Regulatory Commission calls for more check-cashing and money-transfer services to accommodate America's "unbanked" -- primarily low-income residents who pay high fees for services outside of the banking industry. Some 9 million households, about one of every 12, fall into that category.

The Postal Service is a mess, and Congress is to blame for much of the problem. Lawmakers need to revisit their unrealistic bankrolling of health-benefit payments, and they must let the Postal Service find ways to adjust to market forces, whether through more consolidated delivery or an expansion of nontraditional services.

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