Gail Collins / The mail muddle

Congress could stop meddling and help the Postal Service

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I know everyone is exhausted from keeping up with the latest in the baseball career of Alex Rodriguez, but let's tackle the money-losing Postal Service, people!

Today, let's tackle a big national problem. Something that's been going on for so long that everybody's exhausted and has lost all hope of resolution in their lifetimes. (Like the baseball career of Alex Rodriguez.)

The Postal Service. Yes! Let's fix the Postal Service, which lost more than $15 billion last year. Lately, things have been going better, but we're still talking about a problem that's actually way worse than A-Rod. More like something between a plague of locusts and a small, localized zombie invasion.

And it's not all the management's fault. You would be losing money, too, if your core product had been totally undermined by the Internet and you were required to be a self-supporting business except for the part where each and every move required special congressional approval.

For instance, the Postal Service desperately wants to end Saturday delivery, which would save about $2 billion a year. But, so far, Congress has balked. Many lawmakers don't like the idea because six-day delivery is currently a universal fact, and even fiscal conservatives do not like eliminating something their constituents have.

So our first step in fixing the Postal Service will be to make it clear that we are not going to vote anybody out of office for giving us five-day mail. Voters from the right, ask yourself if you really want to be the kind of people who will cheer for the slashing of food stamp programs but whine when you are personally deprived of the ability to receive a new Lands' End catalog on a Saturday. Voters from the left, just save your energy for the food stamp fight.

Next stop, retirees. The Postal Service is supposed to deposit $5.5 billion a year in order to fund future retirees' health benefits 75 years in advance. This was an idea cooked up on a dark day during the Bush administration, possibly by congressional conferees armed with eyes of newt and toe of frog. Almost everybody now agrees it went way overboard.

Also, there is no earthly way the Postal Service can afford to do it. Either Congress is going to have to give up on the idea or allow the entire operation to implode. So the mission is pretty clear. Discontinue the $5.5 billion deposits and get the accountants to work out a new plan.

Wow, you've cut that $16 billion deficit in half! Move over, Paul Ryan.

How about closing some post offices? There are currently 31,272 in the United States, which is more than the number of McDonald's, Starbucks and Wal-Mart stores combined. This idea drives politicians from low-population areas nuts. The current House bill, which recently came out of committee on a party-line vote, says that if the Postal Service closes offices, only 5 percent of them can be in rural districts.

"In an urban area you're not going to be an hour away from another post office," says Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on postal issues.

You know, he has a point. City folk, rally around the rural 5 percent plan. In return for which, perhaps Mr. Farenthold will hold a press conference and announce his support of federal Amtrak subsidies for the Northeast Corridor.

Urban lawmakers, meanwhile, hate the idea of abolishing front-door mail delivery, and making everyone use curbside mailboxes or those cluster boxes you see in the front of new housing developments. This is a favorite cause of House Republicans, but even the Postal Service management isn't really pushing it right now. Take the five-day delivery thing and count your blessings, guys.

Finally, we have New Business Ventures. And, once again, we are in awe of what the Postal Service needs congressional permission to do. One of the big proposals bopping around Congress this year would permit mail shipment of beer and wine. Right now this is illegal because there was once, you know, Prohibition.

"It would generate an estimated $50 million a year," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who is pushing the idea in the House.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern about the problem of kids attempting to skirt age regulations on the purchase of alcohol. This presumes that a group of 17-year-olds in search of a forbidden drink have an extremely high capacity for delayed gratification.

Let's allow the Postal Service to ship wine. We have just eliminated another two days' worth of deficit!

There are lots of other reasonable ideas bopping around, and all those days could eventually add up. For instance, Mr. Speier, whose district suffered a terrible gas explosion a few years back, says there's technology that would allow postal trucks to carry a small machine that would test neighborhoods for gas leaks as the carriers complete their appointed rounds.

On a lighter note, congressional staffers have wondered if the trucks couldn't deliver mail from one side and sell ice cream from another. Really, anything that gets you through another day.

opinion_commentary

Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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