A prescription for disaster

The operation was a success but the patient died. That perhaps apocryphal phrase from the realm of medicine can be applied to the United States Postal Service proposal to resolve its financial problems. Yes, the service can implement $3 billion in reductions to avert rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Doing so, however, most likely would kill mail delivery as Americans know it.

The proposed reductions, announced Sunday, would delay delivery of first-class mail by at least a day, close down more than half of the nation's processing facilities -- the one on Shallowford Road here is on the list of possible closures -- and lead to layoffs for almost 30,000 workers nationwide. It is hard to imagine a more predictable prescription for disaster.

Nevertheless, the Postal Service is prepared to move forward. Technically, it can't do so prior to receipt of an advisory opinion from the Independent Postal Regulatory Commission. That's due in March, but the opinion is mostly meaningless. It is nonbinding, so the proposed reductions likely will move forward soon after the document has been officially received. There's no other real impediment to implementation.

It is increasingly clear that only Congressional action or perhaps a unified, large-scale protest from businesses and individuals who rely on efficient mail delivery can slow or forestall the proposed changes. There no indication that either will occur.

The Postal Service has been conducting hearings around the country about streamlining operations. Indeed, officials were in Chattanooga recently to discuss the possible closure of the processing center. They listened to postal employees and local residents who attended the meeting, but they didn't seem to hear. At meeting's end, it was pretty evident that the agency was going to move forward with reduction plans regardless of public input.

The rise of the Internet has cost the agency billions in annual revenue. As a result, first-class mail volume, which reached 98 billion pieces in 2006, is expected to be about 78 billion pieces this year. Projections are that the current volume will be halved by 2020.

The proposed reductions are short-sighted, and likely to exacerbate the problem they are intended to solve. They do nothing to get at the root of the service's cash flow problems, or to promote the long-term survival of the Postal Service.

There are still millions of customers who rely on timely delivery of everything from checks and bills to prescription drugs and Netflix DVDs. Extending delivery times to two or more days will force many more current customers to consider alternatives to the Post Office. They likely will find them, leading to additional reductions in volume and income.

That should not be allowed to happen. The nation needs reliable first-class mail delivery. Even with a penny increase in the cost of first-class postage next month, the agency can not compete if it remains bound by current rules that govern its operations. The Postal Service is not a government agency and is not funded by taxpayer money. Still, it operates under Congress' direction, a system that requires it to abide by unique contracts and rules governing pensions and retiree benefits that make it difficult to implement positive change and useful innovation. The operating rules should be changed.

Congress, which for the most part has remained mute as the Postal Service's troubles mounted, should act promptly to rewrite the agency's operating rules. That would allow the Post Office to act nimbly and to expand, reduce or initiate services that would make it more competitive in the marketplace. That option is far preferable to cuts in service which will irritate more customers and thus hasten the Postal Service's slide into irrelevancy.

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