Deliver on mail crisis: The USPS needs help from an unhelpful Congress
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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 last 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.
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, 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. It also saved jobs at the nation's 3,700 rural post offices.
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. 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.
First Published August 6, 2012 12:00 am