Congress Stiffs the Postal Service

Nov. 1, 2001
All the atta-boys given the Postal Service during the recent terrorist attacks translate to the Postmaster General's being handed his hat when it comes to money for upgrading security and safety, and for covering losses.

Congress Stiffs the Postal Service

Yesterday evening President Bush told a television audience that “we join in thanking a whole new group of public servants who never enlisted to fight a war, but find themselves on the front lines of a battle nevertheless, those who deliver the mail, America’s postal workers.”

Yesterday daytime Postmaster General John E. Potter asked a Senate Appropriations committee for $5 billion like the airline bailout: $3 billion for facilities cleanup and mail protection, $2 billion for loss of revenue. The Office of Management and Budget spokesperson reminded Potter that $175 million had been authorized already to address the Postal Service’s security needs. “We think that this will be sufficient for this year,” OMB said.

Message to postal workers: You’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work. Just don’t ask for money.

When you talk about billions and trillions in Washington, it doesn’t apply to the Postal Service. The 1971 Postal Reorganization Act mandated a $15 billion debt ceiling that will be reached shortly. Just to break even, USPS has already proposed a rate increase that includes a 3-cent hike on a first-class stamp. Newspapers are sure to holler boondoggle!

If the Postal Service is sent away without a bailout, the only way to balance the budget is with a massive rate increase. And the pressure will mount for deregulating USPS.

Keep in mind that deregulation was talked about when the Postal Service enjoyed hero status after the New York attack. Congress, the comptroller of the United States and USPS agreed to work out a deregulation strategy that would have something for everybody.

Now Congress has turned stingy. The call for deregulation will get stronger. But this is the kind of deregulation that gives “private carriers a chance to slice off the meat — the easy-to-handle, easy-to-deliver mail in metropolitan areas — and leave USPS with the bones of what’s left.” I made this accusation in 1987, but the Deregulation Gang still hasn’t given up its goal of hijacking the profitable first-class mail delivery. Over the years the Gang has floated ideas like:

• Subsidizing mail delivery to only the most densely populated areas and letting residents in the boondocks pay the true costs of service.

• Allowing private delivery of catalogs and other direct mail. That would “create thousands of low-skilled jobs and reduce teen-age unemployment.” (No mention of needing a postal inspector on every route to keep the low-skilled teenagers from throwing the catalogs into the sewer.)

You get the idea. The Deregulation Gang wants to divvy up the loot in the form of first-class mail delivery; overhead like postal inspectors only cuts into profits. Nor is there ever any mention of things like:

• The service that forwards your mail when you move.

• Investment in postal automation to reduce the labor content of mail processing.

• Training in mail handling and delivery.

• The concept of universal service — mail delivery to every household and business, no matter how small or remote.

Back in 1995 I argued that “the privatize-USPS crowd doesn’t understand that mail collection, processing and delivery is a system, not a collection of independent contractors who won low-bid contracts for a number of ZIP Code areas.”

USPS needs an airlines-type bailout. The alternative is to allow the Deregulation Gang to plunder the Postal Service.

Bernie Knill

contributing editor

[email protected]