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Editorial: Postal Service caught between realities, Congress

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 10:10 PM

After the U.S. Postal Service announced last week that it intends to stop Saturday delivery of mail in August, the criticism poured in from a variety of fronts, including several lawmakers.

Rural residents will suffer, the critics said, as will commerce. And the Postal Service will only be hurting itself, they claimed.

But, really, what did the critics expect?

They can't simply ignore the fact that the public's increased use of electronic technology -- primarily the use of email -- at the expense of traditional mail has hit the Postal Service's bottom line hard in recent years. Nor should they discount that the Postal Service has been in a relationship with a Congress that likes to limit the agency's options, hold the agency up to standards that are not even demanded of federal agencies and yet refuses to provide any subsidy whatsoever. The Postal Service gets no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to congressional control.

In short, the Postal Service has been told to act like a business and balance its budget, but hasn't been given the leeway to do so.

The Postal Service, which suffered a $15.9 billion loss in the past budget year, said it expected to save $2 billion annually with the Saturday cutback, which would affect mail such as letters and magazines. Delivery of packages, a growing segment of the Postal Service's business, would continue six days a week -- a step that should blunt criticism that commerce will be greatly hurt by the agency's plan.

While mail would be delivered to homes and businesses only from Monday through Friday, it would still be delivered to post office boxes on Saturdays. In addition, post offices now open on Saturdays would remain open on Saturdays. In other words, smaller communities with post offices won't lose those connections, as some critics have said.

Certainly, ending Saturday delivery is likely to require adjustments for many businesses and individual customers. The timing of mailings may need to be altered. Those who still rely on the mail to pay bills may have to send them off a day or two earlier.

The criticism from those serving in Congress is especially ironic, but may end up being the undoing of the Postal Service's plan.

The Postal Service has asked Congress permission to end Saturday service for years to reduce costs. Congress has long included a ban on five-day-only delivery in its spending bills. But because the federal government is now operating under a temporary spending measure rather than an appropriations bill, the agency believes it can now make the change itself. It remains to be seen whether that holds up.

The majority of the Postal Service's red ink comes from a 2006 law forcing it to pay about $5.5 billion a year into future retiree health benefits. That's something no other federal agency is required to do. Without that payment -- $11.1 billion in a two-year installment last year -- and related labor expenses, the mail agency sustained an operating loss of $2.4 billion for the past fiscal year. That's a gap that ending Saturday delivery of mail could mostly close.

Other cost-saving steps, such as consolidating processing centers and closing some post offices in small towns, have met with resistance in Congress, too. Would Congress rather that more post offices be closed to save Saturday delivery?

It's time for Congress and the public to accept the realities faced by the Postal Service. With declining mail volume, the Postal Service must make adjustments in service to balance its budget or it may require a subsidy from the government to continue services as they are. Congress needs to make a choice. It can't have it both ways.

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