Inside Maine: Don't stop Saturday delivery to fix postal woes

The U.S. Postal Service wants to end Saturday mail delivery and reaction in Congress has been, so far, tepid. That must change. Mail delivery is a valuable public service and cutting it back would save a trivial amount of money and eventually erode both speed and reliability.

As opposed to cracks about “snail mail” a lot of us depend on mail service for our livelihoods. As a self-employed person, I rely on my mailbox to pay suppliers, receive payments, get information in my preferred form (print) and keep up with family and friends in places and formats that email, Twitter and Facebook don’t reach.

We might also mention Netflix, recordings for the blind, legal documents, and millions of packages USPS says it will still deliver – maybe. Here’s the real news: the Internet hasn’t replaced what we get through the mail. New technology complements, but doesn’t replace, old technology. That’s why we still have, and will continue to have, books and magazines along with radio, television, cable and the web.

Don’t we have to do this? Supposedly, 70 percent of Americans think ending Saturday delivery is acceptable. Baloney. Here’s an actual finding from a 2012 Rasmussen survey, which puts a thumb, and several fingers, firmly on the postal scale: “Three-out-of-four Americans would prefer the U.S. Postal Service cut mail delivery to five days a week rather than receive government subsidies to cover ongoing losses.”

Of course they would. But that couldn’t happen. No one proposes that USPS “receive government subsidies.” Its 1971 charter as a nonprofit corporation bars taxpayer subsidies.

Other poll questions are less provocative, but they all put ending Saturday delivery into the context of “solving” the Postal Service’s “financial problems.” As a policy guide, they’re useless. They’re “push polls” designed to convince people that what they might think is a really bad idea is actually a good one.

But isn’t the Postal Service broke? No, it isn’t. The big problem at the moment is that Congress saddled USPS in 2006 with a mandate to pre-pay health care costs for retirees too young for Medicare. Benefit programs are allegedly under-financed, but the Postal Service is the only government agency required to make huge up-front payments. Over 10 years, there’s supposed to be $90 billion collected, about half already paid, to support benefits for 75 years.

Lest we blame this on Republicans – the bill was sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Virginia) – it was co-sponsored by California Democrat Henry Waxman, a liberal icon. It passed unanimously because, at the time, it seemed like a good idea and money seemed to be there. Then came the Great Recession and the widespread switch to online bill paying. USPS no longer has the money.

But it may not need to keep paying. The $45 billion already accumulated will last for decades, and ending Saturday delivery “saves” just $2 billion a year – less than the price of a single Navy warship.

And it will foul up service. Already, residential mail volumes are lowest on Monday, highest on Saturday. Skip two days and the bottlenecks will grow, reversing service improvements made in recent decades.

For those still unconvinced, consider history. Before the Civil War, mail delivery was seen as a public good – a way to distribute pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides – think Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” – efficiently and cheaply. Still, it was subsidized, something Southern congressmen resented when antislavery tracts became popular mailings.

When Southerners formed their own government, the Confederacy, they decided the post office would pay for itself. Unfortunately, it forced continual cutbacks in “unprofitable” routes, and by war’s end mail volume was one-fifth of levels before Fort Sumter.

The Confederacy couldn’t communicate with its own constituents. There are many reasons the South lost the war, but this was undoubtedly one of them. Not coincidentally, Saturday delivery began in 1863, when Southern states were out of the Union.

A reform bill to relieve the Postal Service of its unnecessary accounting burden by nearly $6 billion a year – three times the “savings” of Saturday cutbacks – was passed by the Senate and, predictably, bottled up in the House by Speaker John Boehner. With nary a Republican House member left in New England, we’ll have to go right to the top.

Here’s my suggestion: Write a brief note and mail it to Speaker Boehner, and another to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, saying the nonsense must stop, the reform bill must pass, and Saturday mail delivery must continue.

We can show our solidarity with an age-old public benefit, and petition our leaders in a way emails will never match.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at drooks@tds.net.

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ERNEST LABBE's picture

The solution is simple

The solution is simple raise the rates on parcel post. First class mail has subsidized it for years. Fed-Ex and UPS would be out of business if their rates were as low as USPS.

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