A strategy for the postal service

A strategy for the postal service

September 21st, 2011 in Opinion Times

The woes of the U.S. Postal Service are well documented. Most recently, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told Congress how technology and changing markets continue to undermine the service's fiscal stability. The agency lost more than $8 billion last year and could lose even more this year. There's been a lot talk about the problem, but few concrete suggestions to remedy it. That changed Monday when President Barack Obama provided a detailed strategy for rejuvenating the postal service.

The blueprint must pass political and public muster. It has much to recommend it.

The recommendation likely to stir the most debate is reducing the number of days mail will be delivered from six to five. Saturday delivery is most likely to be eliminated. That will cause some hardship, but some cuts are necessary to save a vital public service. A delivery reduction, albeit painful, is one such cut. Officials say ending Saturday service could save $3.1 billion annually.

Two other Obama proposals are meritorious as well. There's no reason to force the postal service to continue to prepay retiree medical benefits (no other federal agency does). It also makes sense to refund what the agency has overpaid into the federal retirement system. Neither step eliminates the service's obligations, but both provide a bit of financial cushion.

Obama's proposal also would allow an increase in the price of postage, and it would allow post offices to sell "non-postal products," though there was no indication what those might be. Those proposals should incite relatively little opposition.

The president's proposals drew both praise and condemnation, generally along partisan lines. Democrats, on the whole, welcomed the plan. Most Republicans, especially those on the right, were quick to condemn it. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the president's plan is a "gimmick" and a "taxpayer funded bailout." That's is an extremist view not supported by analysis.

Some members of Congress, particularly in rural areas, will oppose the president's plan because their constituents fear that it will lead to additional closures of post offices and service centers -- many admittedly the center of community life and providers of jobs. They probably are right. There will be some contraction in postal workforce and facilities in the future. There will be far more, though, if the postal service is not put on sound footing now.

President Obama's postal service plan offers a sensible approach to maintaining a vital service that private, for-profit businesses can't provide. The plan deserves thoughtful consideration, some fine tuning if necessary, and ultimate approval.