Congress is like a helicopter parent when it comes to the U.S. mail. It wants the Postal Service to operate independently, without federal funding, and yet it hovers overhead, dictating every move of the organization — rate increases, days of delivery, employee benefits.
That worked as long as snail mail was the main way of sending written communication, giving the Postal Service plenty of business. But as nearly everyone who pays bills — or who sends out invitations or shares photos with relatives or writes notes to friends — knows, the Internet is a whole lot faster and more convenient than the U.S. mail. The Postal Service has seen upticks in package delivery because of online shopping, but that hasn't offset the decline in letter delivery. The agency is also burdened by an unusual statutory requirement that it fund future retiree health benefits 75 years in advance of when they would arise. Two years ago, it defaulted on payments to this fund.
Various bills have been introduced in an effort to streamline the Postal Service and move it toward self-sufficiency, but they have not passed. One major objection has been the prospect of ending Saturday delivery — an idea disliked by the unions representing postal workers and by customers who don't want to see service levels fall. But these days, technology and private mail services offer other ways to fill that gap, and the reality is that the nation can't keep its chief mail service on the brink of insolvency.
The most recent bill, the Postal Reform Act of 2014 authored by Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), offers a sensible and multifaceted approach to freeing the Postal Service from many of the tethers that have kept it back.
The bill would allow post offices to increase revenue by using their space for more than mail-related business; they might sell other items, or rent space to, say, a small banking branch. Post offices would also be allowed to contract with state and local governments, providing fishing licenses, as one example.
Meanwhile, the Postal Service's health expenses would be reduced by moving new retirees to Medicare benefits, using their Postal Service coverage only as supplemental insurance. This would cost the federal government more, but it's only fair: Postal workers pay into the Medicare fund like most U.S. employees, but don't receive benefits from it. Why shouldn't they?
And postal officials would be free to eliminate Saturday delivery if mail volume dropped below a certain level.
Coburn is retiring, and if the bill doesn't pass during the lame-duck session, Carper would have to start over, finding another co-sponsor on the other side of the aisle. The time has come to let the Postal Service grow up.