Mail service could crash and burn

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Mailman Brad Yonan surveys hispostal vehicle after it caught fire on his route north of Tucson, Ariz. DAVID SAUNDERS / Arizona Republic

The U.S. Postal Service expects a slight delay in the overhaul needed to stave off collapse of the nation's mail system — perhaps six months or more.

 

Postal customers — that is, taxpayers — should expect additional charges, starting at more than $2 billion and escalating. The fact that postal officials have delivered such troubling news stems from reports that Republican House leaders may not act anytime soon on a plan to stem the service's billion-dollar losses.

If Congress doesn't act before the August recess, there's talk that lawmakers might spend the rest of the legislative calendar on other issues — when they're not consumed by a presidential-year election in which political control of Washington is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, Postal Service losses will continue to mount at the rate of $25 million a day, threatening its ability to provide reliable mail delivery and secure the jobs of 547,000 postal workers.

Worse, delaying the reforms needed to cope with red ink will further erode a customer base already winnowed by competition from electronic mail services, which have already cut a 20 percent gash in first-class mail.

As a supporter of a credible Senate aid plan, Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) rightly calls it "irresponsible" for the House to kick the can down the road. He says the agency has lost more than $2 billion just since the Senate approved its reform package in April.

Carper said a threatened Aug. 1 default on a $5.5 billion Postal Service payment to its health fund would "further weaken business and consumer confidence in the future of this American institution."

While the Senate blueprint makes the most sense (it would preserve next-day delivery for first-class letters within regions, as well as save Saturday service for at least two years), the House has its own ideas on how to improve the financial outlook of the Postal Service. But in the more austere House strategy, six-day delivery doesn't survive, and a base-closing-style commission — rather than the early retirement incentives provided in the Senate plan — would direct the downsizing of postal facilities.

Any plan would have to relieve the Postal Service from the crushing up-front costs for pension and health benefits that are about to come due. Beyond that, the agency needs to be given the authority to sell non-postal products and services, thereby bolstering its bottom line.

For instance, Carper's legislation sees the agency being allowed to ship beer, wine, and liquor for the first time.

At some point, lawmakers also need to face up to the need to lift arbitrary caps on postal rates.

Despite differing approaches in the House and Senate, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe thinks it's possible to reconcile a reform plan. But to do that, House leaders need to put a hold on other business and get serious about saving the Postal Service. That's what taxpayers want.