Inquirer Editorial: Easier to battle rain, snow

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe says nothing is "set in stone," so there's some faint hope of altering the sweeping cutbacks planned for the U.S. Postal Service.

But time is running out, and congressional action is critical.

The postmaster's plan to save $15 billion over three years by closing or merging more than 200 mail-handling facilities could slow first-class mail, throw up to 35,000 people out of work, and risk even greater erosion in post office business. Among the facilities affected in eastern Pennsylvania are Altoona, Erie, Greensburg, Lancaster, New Castle, Reading, Scranton, Washington, Paoli, and Williamsport.

It's not that Donahoe has much choice but to pursue such a strategy, even if it proves self-defeating. The quasi-governmental agency he heads faces a $14 billion loss this fiscal year. It has seen the volume of first-class mail drop by 25 percent in recent years, yet the post office receives no direct taxpayer aid.

The Internet and the explosion of digital communications have dashed any hope of making the core service of delivering mail profitable to any degree. But it remains in the national interest to provide reliable and comprehensive mail delivery across the country, at the very least because 40 percent of Americans still pay their bills by mail.

A five-month congressional moratorium on closing postal facilities has delayed any retrenchment until May. That means the clock is ticking for Congress to act - if not by providing any direct aid, at least by giving the Postal Service better tools to shape its destiny.

For instance, the archaic linking of postal-rate increases to inflation should be scrapped - with the clear understanding that postal customers simply are going to have to pay a little more to preserve reliable, on-time service.

Similarly, rules must be loosened so that post offices are permitted to offer new products and services to generate additional revenue.

Donahoe also needs to be able to recover some of the $7 billion the Postal Service made in overpayments toward employee-pension costs that now are said to be better-funded.

These and other government-aid measures should be made contingent upon an agreement to maintain critical, six-day mail delivery, as well as substantially reevaluate mail-handling facility closures with an eye toward avoiding any slowing of first-class letters.

The congressional goal must be that the eventual Postal Service plans, once they are set in stone, form the building blocks of success - rather than a grave marker for the U.S. mail.