Hello Idaho by Robert Ehlert: Congress should save Postal Service

September 18, 2013 

Ever since the word “trillion” entered the government debt conversation, a paltry “billion” seems like chump change and a “million” as insignificant as a penny at a parking meter.

So, when we mention that the U.S. Postal Service lost $16 billion in 2012 and so far this year has lost only $4 billion to $5 billion through three quarters in fiscal 2013, you can put this into the proper contemporary perspective.

I am quite fond of the Postal Service. Besides having beloved family members and friends who have served it, I understand the importance and context of the tradition and the very building — especially in smaller, rural communities in Idaho and beyond, where the post office is a gathering place and landmark.

I don’t get nearly as excited about getting an email as I do about getting a handwritten letter or the occasional package bursting with foam peanuts. If I want to send a box of rocks across the country, I grab a Priority Flat Rate box, stuff it and ship it off for $10 to $15.

That said, the USPS is in big trouble. Its traditional business model is evaporating, losing out to technology just like the Pony Express succumbed to the telegraph 153 years ago. A new generation thinks it has little use for the Postal Service. Parcel Post seems to have the edge on online shopping/shipping sprees.

As if the free marketplace was not being cruel enough to the USPS, Congress a few years back decided to demand that it prefund health care expenses for those who will eventually enter its pension system — something most other federal agencies don’t have to deal with in the same way.

About half of the Postal Service’s red ink can be attributed to having to make those pension payments. According to a statement issued last month from Postmaster General and CEO Patrick Donahoe, the Postal Service won’t be able to make its Sept. 30 health care/pension payment of $5.6 billion or the $1.4 billion it owes the Department of Labor for workers’ compensation. It can’t borrow money.

Try as it might with technological initiatives — digitally tracking packages, selling postage online and making greater use of computers and databases — the Postal Service is losing more and more ground to the sands of time. There is a Five-Year Plan to save $20 billion (read it here) by 2017 by increasing package service and dropping Saturday delivery, but Congress is going to have to vote to restructure the USPS. There are bills in the House and Senate to accomplish this, but that seems like back-burner matter to the Syrian crisis, the entire government’s financial peril (funding runs out Sept. 30) and debating when and how to raise the debt ceiling in October.

The USPS wants to start acting more like a business, but laws prohibit many of its Big Ideas. If, for instance, the USPS could begin shipping alcohol (now forbidden), the wineries, breweries and spirit-makers all over the West and Northwest could cash in on new and hard-to-reach customers. Imagine if Sockeye beer and Idaho wines could make their way to “I” states such as Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and other places not known for suds and Syrahs. Of course, this would require legal interstate cooperation and some regulation, but it is possible.

One of USPS’s biggest liability expenditures — besides labor, which is 80 percent of costs — is that it has to deliver everywhere. But that could also be an asset.

I’ve always wondered why the people who run the Census Bureau and the USPS can’t work out some efficiencies every 10 years during the regular Census, and in off years when the American Community Survey is circulated.

The Postal Service knows where you live. Its workers drive or walk by nearly every day. What else could they be delivering?

Open your eyes and ears, Congress. If you’re not going to close the USPS down, then get this restructuring deal done and get to work on some new mail routes to the future.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6219, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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