Congress Fiddles While the Post Office Burns
Americans have heard a lot in recent days about the “default” by the United States Postal Service. And the way that much of the media covered the story would lead those who have not followed the wrangling over the USPS’s future to imagine there’s a problem with the post office.
After all, the financial circumstance of the USPS sounds nightmarish.
“The Postal Service, on the verge of its first default on Wednesday, faces a cash shortage of $100 million this October stemming from declining mail volume that could balloon to $1.2 billion next year, “ declared the New York Times. “Confronting $11.1 billion in payments over the next two months for future benefits, the service said it would fail to pay about half that amount, which is due Wednesday, and does not foresee making the other half, which is due in September. An additional $5.6 billion payment due next year is also in question.”
But the real story of Wednesday’s default by the postal service was never one of declining mail volume or inefficiency.
“The ‘default’ is not primarily the result of a bad market or even bad operations, but of bad legislating by Congress,” explains National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando.
Honest members of Congress agree. “Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to establish and ensure operation of the Postal Service,” noted Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, on Wednesday. “Today, August 1, 2012—224 years after the Constitution was ratified—Congress is presiding over the disestablishment of the Postal Service. Today a manufactured default created by Congressional legislation is pushing the Postal Service to the brink.”
In 2006, a Republican Congress—acting at the behest of the Bush-Cheney administration—enacted a law that required the postal service to “pre-fund” retiree health benefits 75 years into the future. No major private-sector corporation or public-sector agency could do that. It’s an untenable demand. “(The) Postal Service in the short term should be released from an onerous and unprecedented burden to pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits over a 10-year period,” says US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “With $44 billion now in the fund, the Postal Service inspector general has said that program is already stronger than any other equivalent government or private-sector fund in the country. There already is more than enough in the account to meet all obligations to retirees.”
“The Postal Service should also be allowed to recover more than $13 billion in overpayments it has made to its pension plans,” adds Sanders. “With these changes alone, the Postal Service would be back in the black and posting profits.”
Sanders and other concerned legislators have gotten the Senate to take some steps toward addressing what is, in reality, a Congressional crisis—not a postal crisis. But the disengaged and dysfunctional Republican leadership in the House has failed to act in an even minimally responsible manner.
The Post Office will need to make changes. It will need to evolve as the ways in which Americans communicate change. But it can and should remain the vital source of community and connection that it has been since the nation’s founding. For that to happen, however, the USPS must be allowed by maintain staffing and infrastructure, to expand services, to operate in a fiscally responsible and fiscally sane manner—not required to default.
Now that the default has occurred, the Postal Service enters a danger zone where it’s future becomes increasingly tenuous. The fall election season becomes essential. Candidates for president, the US Senate and the US House need to be pressed on postal issues. And they need to provide specific answers. Those candidates—Democrats or Republicans—who do not defend the postal service should be viewed in the same light as those candidates who will not defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. When a vital public service, an essential framework for American communications, is threatened, members of Congress and candidates for Congress who refuse to recognize the crisis should be refused the votes of responsible Americans.
This year, Americans who want to preserve the USPS should cast “postal votes.” Back the candidates who are fighting to preserve the postal service; reject those who are not. And press every contender to take a stand. This is the election that will matter. If Congress does not change, the postal service will be undermined and ultimately destroyed.
Fredric Rolando of the Letter Carriers union, got it precisely right when he said: “Congress has failed to deal with the unfair and unaffordable financial burden of pre-funding, which is the one thing that could provide the Postal Service some much-needed breathing room to address its long-term challenges in a strategic way. In short, Wednesday’s default (wasn’t) be committed by the Postal Service, but by Congress.”
To rectify the circumstance, American cannot reject the Post Office. It must reject the Congress that has failed to recognize or respect—let alone act upon—its constitutionally-defined mandate “to establish and ensure operation of the Postal Service,”
“The Congress has a responsibility to stand up, but here in the USA., under Citizens United, everything is up for auction including the Postal Service,” shouts Kucinich. “Wake up, America. Universal service is on the line. Wake up, America and stand up for the Constitution. 575,000 Postal Service workers and our obligation to the American people to see to it that the Postal Service is rescued from those who want to push it into default or privatize it for their own profit.”
© 2012 The Nation