The Postage Problem

Joe Nocera thinks that a viable postal service is possible, but what’s really necessary is “for Congress to get out of the way and allow it to begin truly operating like a real business.” What he means is that not only was Congress responsible for imposing all sorts of uniquely onerous pension burdens that made the Postal Service’s rapidly declining mail volume all-the-more-difficult to deal with, but also that the legislation that’s been proposed in the House and passed in the Senate is not really up to the job of preserving the USPS:

Last year, the post office announced an ambitious cost-cutting plan, including the closure of 3,700 rural post offices, for potential savings of $6.5 billion. The Senate reacted by insisting on a six-month moratorium, during which it was supposed to come up with a bill that would fix the problems. It passed the bill, all right — one that grudgingly gives the post office a bit more wiggle room but also continues to tie its hands in a hundred different ways. (It does, however, eliminate the prefunding requirement.)

A parallel House bill, which has not yet reached the floor, would allow for rural post office closings — but only after they’d been vetted by a commission, similar to the way Congress allows the military to close bases. Meanwhile, the Postal Service is doing what it can. Last week, it unveiled a rural post office strategy that would only save it $500 million, and, just a few days ago, it said it would begin consolidating its big mail-processing centers. But, without legislation, there are severe limits to what it can do to save itself.

One solution Nocera mentions is a fairly obvious one that never made it into the Senate bill: raising the price of postage. Political Animal emeritus Kevin Drum, reacting to the Senate bill passed in April, described the congressional refusal to countenance for expensive first class stamps as “crazy.”

While Nocera and Drum are certainly right in thinking that the best idea for the Post Office is for Congress to stop actively making their financial situation worse and to implement policies that will actually work towards establishing a viable postal service. But of course Congress should do smart things instead of dumb things!

But some level of Congress being Congress is inevitable. The entire point of a national postal service is that it subsidizes rural areas through artificially cheap postage and rural mail centers; something that can only be done if there’s a political decision to provide a service with a higher level of coverage and accessibility than a private-sector equivalent.