The motto of the United States Postal Service is "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
Ha! That ideal does not apply to Sundays and may not always apply to Saturdays either. And as for "swift," the word went out of fashion an eternity ago along with the penny postcard. "Snail mail" is not a joke.
Thirty years ago the Nixon administration concluded that a quasi-government agency run by business executives could deliver the mail more efficiently than the old system run by faceless federal bureaucrats. A brand new corporate mind-set, however, improved neither fiscal stability nor service to the public. The post office has, in fact, been a mess ever since.
Now the agency's management concedes that it expects to lose between $2 billion and $3 billion next year, continuing a perpetual pattern of shaky finances and red ink. So officials are about to ask Congress for another first-class stamp rate increase on the grounds that the 1 cent jump in January to 34 cents wasn't enough. This time the hike may be 3 or 4 cents.
These corporate geniuses also are threatening to stop delivering letters on Saturday, a bad idea but not a new one. Within six years of their takeover, they raised the specter of weekend-long empty mail boxes if they didn't get higher rates to cover their deficits. And they bring up the proposal every time they demand another increase, which has become almost an annual event. It's a familiar political scare tactic.
The Postal Service has a million excuses for its incompetence. A popular whine is that competition is fierce. A significant number of people now use e-mail, electronic bill payments, message delivery services and other privately subsidized high-tech businesses. Indeed, regular mail volume has declined because of the Internet.
But there will always be a need for personal and business letters.
The problem is not just that the post office sees itself as a business run for the comfort of employers and employees, not as an essential public service run for the convenience of the public.
Despite its financial losses, the agency recently handed out $280 million in management bonuses. Its own inspector general's office claimed recently to have found more than $1.4 billion in waste, fraud and abuse.
Furthermore, the agency does not suffer as much from its quasi-governmental restrictions as it pretends. It is exempt from paying state and local taxes and is permitted to borrow money at discounted interest rates. It also benefits from subsidies valued at more than $1 billion annually. Most importantly, it has a legal monopoly over the handling of letters.
But the Postal Service has lost its sense of mission. During a financial slump more than 20 years ago, the agency spent $4 million on a Madison Avenue advertising campaign urging Americans to write more letters. The idea was to generate more revenue-producing first-class mail, but mostly what it generated was criticism for wasting public funds on trying to drum up business for itself. Since then, the agency has tried a variety of other unsuccessful gimmicks, from fancy decorator stamps to unpopular commercial ventures not related to the mail.
The agency employs more than 900,000 people, which represents a 36 percent increase in staff since 1980. Postmaster General William Henderson told a House committee last week that to make the postal system profitable, Congress would have to rescind laws that prevent the closing of money-losing rural post offices and forbid rapid, uncontrolled increases in mail delivery rates. He did not volunteer any internal management reforms.
It makes sense to go back to the old system in which the post office was simply a government responsibility, paid for by the taxpayers.
Delivering the mail is one of the few federal tasks specifically assigned to Congress in the Constitution. It remains as vital to our national well-being as printing money and maintaining a military.
This business of threatening to end Saturday deliveries has to stop. Maybe federal bureaucrats can't do everything, but they are better at putting the public interest first than corporate executives are.
Copyright 2001 Oregon Live