Of all the tasks confronting the newly elected Congress, none is more basic, in terms of plain old democratic governance, than reforming the U.S. Postal Service. This workhorse agency, which epitomizes the federal government in the daily lives of ordinary citizens, is reeling from a double whammy: technological obsolescence and accumulated inefficiencies. Years of downsizing enabled the USPS to break even on its operations in fiscal 2013 (if you don’t count losses due to $5.6 billion in legally required retiree health-care prepayments). Yet its bread-and-butter business, first-class mail, remains in long-term decline; the Postal Service’s only chance at a solvent future is to undertake further, more fundamental structural reform.
The good news is that years of discussion have yielded significant bipartisan agreement about what needs to be done. In the Senate, Tom Carper, D-Delaware and Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, gained the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s approval this year for a plan that would grant the USPS billions of dollars in relief from the retiree health prepayments in return for changes such as incentives to eliminate costly Saturday mail delivery and to increase use of more cost-effective curbside multi-residence mailboxes. The bill also calls for allowing the Postal Service’s financial condition to be considered in arbitration with postal unions, which could introduce more financial realism into collective bargaining.
President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal incorporated similar ideas. In the House, Darrell Issa, R-Vista, offered a bill that moves in the same direction, though it includes even more fundamental changes, such as a financial “control board” to supervise the USPS’s transition. Because of Republican rank-and-file objections, Issa’s bill left out the Carper-Coburn measure’s most innovative concept: shifting Postal Service retirees into Medicare, which they don’t currently use even though they support it with taxes.
Still, the basic outlines of a deal – financial relief in exchange for structural reform – are clear and enjoy the support of key players on both sides of the aisle and at the White House. Yes, Carper will lose his committee chairmanship to Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who prefers more radical changes to the USPS, when the Republicans take over the Senate in January. But Johnson is willing to compromise, as he recently told The Washington Post.
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The biggest obstacle facing reform is not partisan politics; it’s interest-group politics. Postal unions, rural states, large-scale commercial mailers and others that depend on the dysfunctional status quo lobby furiously to protect it, or at least those parts of it that favor their particular interests. They’re less concerned with the public’s interest in modernizing the institution so that it won’t require a taxpayer bailout, beyond the $15 billion line of credit with the U.S. Treasury that it’s already used up. The latest evidence of the lobbies’ power is a push by roughly half the current Senate for a moratorium on the closure of inefficient mail-processing facilities in 2015.
The public interest can still prevail, though, if Obama determines that he wants a solvent Postal Service as part of his legacy, and if the new Congress resolves to finish the reform job that this one started.