Going postal

The U.S. Postal Service should have the autonomy to make prudent, if unpopular, decisions


Facing mounting debt, the U.S. Postal Service must continue to restructure its delivery system to avoid a taxpayer bailout of as much as $50 billion by 2017. To do so, the agency needs the autonomy to make prudent, if unpopular, management decisions. Getting the service on a sustainable path will take a partnership with Congress, and thoughtful, balanced changes.

The Postal Service gets no tax dollars for operating expenses; still, Congress regulates it. With its status as a staple public service — even in the age of the Internet — the U.S. government cannot allow the service to go bankrupt and turn over its operations to a hodgepodge of for-profit providers that could cherry-pick the most lucrative markets and abandon the rest of the nation.

The agency has practically pleaded with Congress to allow it to end Saturday mail delivery, but lawmakers and customers have balked. People want equal, or greater, public services — as long as they don’t have to pay for them.

A plan by Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) that would move 30 million residential addresses — about one in three mail customers — from to-the-door to curbside and cluster-box service by 2022 is impractical, even with certain exemptions for people with disabilities. Dense urban areas have too many people for cluster boxes in central neighborhood locations to accommodate.

Safety poses another problem. Even if cluster boxes were absolutely secure, elderly and other customers picking up government checks or prescription drugs could make easy prey. Thieves know when government checks are mailed. And prescription painkillers such as Vicodin can be sold on the street as easily as heroin or cocaine.

Still, inaction is not an option. The Postal Service reported a $16 billion loss last year because of not only reduced mailings, but also advance payments mandated by Congress for future retiree health care.

The agency will need greater flexibility in meeting those payments, or will have to get significant and painful concessions from public-sector unions — the same kind of givebacks that have affected private-sector employees. Still, it would be unfair and impractical to balance the Postal Service budget solely on the backs of working people.

Congress and the service ought to consider other options: ending Saturday delivery, requiring shopping malls and business parks to convert to centralized delivery, and imposing higher fees on high-end housing developments. At the same time, Washington should require bulk and catalog mailers to pay their fair share, instead of cutting sweetheart cut-rate deals with them.

Since the 1970s, the postal service has moved toward curbside and cluster-box delivery in new residential developments. This April, the service started deciding whether to provide such delivery for people who move into newly built homes, rather than let developers decide.

The agency’s five-year plan calls for shifting 20 percent of business-address deliveries from to-the-door to curbside and cluster-box delivery through 2016. Door-to-door delivery costs the Postal Service $353 per address each year, compared with $224 for curbside delivery and $160 for cluster boxes.

Since 2006, the Postal Service has reduced annual costs by $15 billion. It has cut its work force by 193,000 employees — 28 percent. It has consolidated more than 200 mail-processing locations.

Congress and the Postal Service must also consider further increases in stamp prices, as well as taxpayer subsidies that would be more fair and progressive than steep increases in these prices. Together, they must find creative ways to preserve at least the core of an old American tradition, preferably by avoiding a more recent American tradition: managing public services by crisis.