The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power “to establish post offices and post roads.” In recent years, Congress has used that power to make life difficult for the U.S. Postal Service. Sometimes, however, politicians manage to be slightly helpful by being unhelpful.
The Postal Service, an independent federal agency, wanted to eliminate Saturday mail delivery service, except for packages, starting in August. This was a bad idea whose time will not now come, since Congress recently inserted language in a funding resolution that would prohibit this change.
This week, the Postal Service’s board of governors acquiesced in this fact, but not without a warning to Capitol Hill. The Postal Service says it needs the authority to change its delivery service if it is to restore long-term financial stability by generating $2 billion in annual savings.
The Postal Service is expected to operate without direct federal subsidies at a time when the Internet has reduced the volume of mail and private carriers have robbed it of much of its business. It lost nearly $16 billion last year.
Some lawmakers see this as the inevitable advantage of private enterprise. But the playing field is hardly level: Companies such as Federal Express don’t need a physical location in thousands of cities and towns around the country, which Americans demand of the post office.
The Postal Service has made an effort to become leaner and more efficient. It has shed 200,000 jobs over the past few years, consolidated mail processing plants, closed many smaller post offices, and made services available at other outlets. All the while, the cost of postage has gone up to compensate for lost revenue.
Ending Saturday delivery could compromise the Postal Service’s basic mission, but something has to be done — and Congress can help. In 2006, it passed a bill that requires the Postal Service to make large contributions to a health fund for future retirees, a burden that doesn’t apply to other federal agencies.
That mandate made up $11.1 billion of last year’s loss. Talk about unhelpful.
Before postal workers are made to take pay cuts (the hope of the governing board), before Saturday mail service is eliminated, before the price of postage goes up again, Congress should revisit the law and give the Postal Service a fighting chance to make a go of it.