Truths about postal reform

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By Reed Anfinson • National Newspaper Association

Now that the U.S. Senate has passed a bill, S 1789, to reform the ailing U.S. Postal Service, critics are trying to disable the bill on its way to the House of Representatives.

Business Week recently catalogued unhappy stakeholders, including postal unions, postal management and some Republicans who wrongly think the bill burdens taxpayers.

How Indiana’s senators voted

The 21st Century Postal Service Act recently passed the U.S. Senate 62 to 37.

Sens. Richard Lugar and Dan Coats both voted against the measure. The two Republican lawmakers offered these statements in response to a request from HSPA about why they opposed the act: 

From Lugar’s office: While Senator Lugar strongly supports reforms of the U.S. Postal System and the critical services it provides to communities and businesses in Indiana, the bill passed by the Senate falls short of ensuring the long-term viability of the U.S. Postal Service.

Senator Lugar is hopeful that a consensus agreement can be reached which addresses these long-term challenges. He is open to voting for a conference report if the bill is improved.

From Coats’ office: Though the Postal Act contains some positive steps, this legislation is a missed opportunity to make the structural reforms necessary to save the Postal Service. Short-term financial relief will not ensure that mail delivery and taxpayer dollars are protected in the future.

The U.S. Postal Service is a cherished American institution, but it faces a financial crisis that requires more than just a temporary fix. By its own estimate, the Postal Service will face a shortfall of up to $238 billion by 2020. The Postal Service must change the way it operates and adapt to a world increasingly reliant on digital communication.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose own bill awaits action in the House, blasted “special interests.” But Business Week says, “Considering how many people are unhappy with the bill, it isn’t clear which special interests Issa is referring to.”

Some see the Senate bill as the inevitable product of the sausage machine. But it is neither a budget buster nor processed meat. It is the expression of a better vision of the Postal Service.

If you consider that survival of the service means maintaining the circulatory system for a $1.1 trillion mailing industry – or in other words, making sure cash, greeting cards, packages and newspapers and magazines arrive on time, the Senate bill is good medicine.

Consider some of the alternative fixes.

Issa’s bill would let the Postal Service immediately end Saturday mail, close half the mail processing centers and thousands of post offices, and put a new board of political appointees in charge.

The new board would be expected to trim workers’ benefits and maybe wages and direct the Postmaster General to favor profit over service.

At the other extreme might be Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who wanted to keep everything open. Labor unions backing him say the Postal Service will heal as the economy heals. Then there is the White House’s notion: to raise postage rates.

For Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., neither extreme is suited to long-term survival of the Postal Service.

To many experts, Issa’s approach is likely to frighten away businesses that mail. The Lieberman-Collins bill agrees that the Postal Service needs a more flexible, less costly workforce.

It keeps mail flowing through today’s network while cost cutting is underway.

For example, they would end Saturday mail delivery in two years, but only if the Postal Service has taken other big steps toward financial viability. They would allow the closing of postal plants now, if the Postal Service preserves local mail delivery speed.

Is their bill the product of compromise or of a different vision? Consider:

• The Postal Service’s plant-closing plan is based on a desire to amass more mail at automated urban centers, where costly machines sit idle much of the day. To optimize machines, the Postal Service would haul mail much farther. But the hauling would slow the mail stream.

• Many Americans say they wouldn’t miss Saturday mail. But the Postal Service builds its system around senders, not receivers. Who would be hurt by a five-day delivery regime? Anyone who depends on timely mail delivery.

• Closing small post offices seems a no-brainer to city dwellers who spot those one-room operations at the roadside on the way to the beach. Surely not all are needed. But rather than closing them entirely, the Postal Service could have circuit-rider postmasters to open them a few hours a day.

• The Congressional Budget Office says the Senate bill would cost $33.6 billion, adding to the federal deficit. But postage-payers, not taxpayers, carry that burden. Taxpayers face a liability as the funder-of-last resort only if postage revenues dry up – which is more likely to happen if the mail slows to a crawl.

Finally, members of Con­gress may differ on how they see the Postal Service. Is it a corporation? Is it a government agency responsible for binding the nation together?

Fact: It is a government-sponsored enterprise, more like Fannie Mae than like IBM or the Defense Depart­ment. It has to use business tools but carry out a public mission.

It isn’t compromise that is needed but a clear-eyed vision based on a full understanding of the needs of all who the Postal Service serves.

Postal management today has an impossible task, expected to accomplish business goals without the cost-controlling tools businesses have and expected to achieve government ends without federal support.

Reed Anfinson is president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County (Minn.) Monitor-News.

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