In Our View: Reality Hits Postal Service

Meaningful reform will not occur until agency understands bottom line

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Patrick Donahoe, a 37-year employee of the U.S. Postal Service, has several innovative ideas for reforming the agency. He wants to drop Saturday mail delivery and adjust the unreasonable requirement that the Postal Service pre-fund employee health benefits for 75 years.But Donahoe is not your average veteran postal worker. He's the U.S. postmaster general, wielding enough clout to oversee hiring freezes and post office closures.

These reform efforts will not financially rescue the Postal Service unless Donahoe, the letter carriers union and Congress accept this stark lesson from the cyberworld: Because of the Internet — and especially because of email — our lives and the American business world will never be the same.

And that's what the Postal Service is: a business, albeit a quasi-public corporation. Donahoe said as much in a Tuesday speech in Vancouver: "Like any other business, we have to work to get debt-free and make money." Outside the Hilton, letter carriers protested, one of them assailing "an institution that's being dismantled right before our eyes." Well, sir, welcome to the real world. Just as newspapers and other industries have had to adjust to cyberworld influences, so must the Postal Service.

Newspapers would love to grow the business. But when that doesn't work, we had better make expenses meet revenues. Until that cold, cruel reality is better understood by federal bureaucrats — and politicians too timid to offend constituents — meaningful government reform will never take hold.

Business is down 25 percent at the Postal Service in the past five years. Sound familiar, private-sector business owners? Instead of trying to regain that business, the first priority should be balancing the books. Donahoe projects a common-sense attitude, correctly challenging Americans to "educate Congress" about the real world of mail delivery. Too bad the union leaders aren't as realistic and visionary.

Ending Saturday mail delivery, as we editorialized last year, makes good sense because it would save the cash-strapped Postal Service $2.7 billion a year. And Congress' changing the 75-year requirement for pre-funding employee health benefits makes sense, too, because it would keep the agency from leaving those obligations unpaid, a fiscal mistake that is happening twice this year.

But a more creative, more aggressive approach is needed. Moving postal workers out of the federal retirement system and into their own retirement program would result in significant savings.

Speaking of innovative solutions, Congress should review the antiquated Private Express Statutes of 1845, which allow only the Postal Service to deliver first-class mail. Jeff Jared (a Kirkland lawyer) addressed this issue in a 2011 column for The Kirkland Reporter: "At what point does the USPS lose its moral right to the monopoly that the Private Express Statutes of 1845 granted it?" he wrote last year. Jared advocates dramatic reform: "legalize competition and let the USPS sink or swim. Or sell off the USPS in the open market. … But either way, this Tyrannosaurus rex of a monopoly needs to be ended so that market forces can work their magic on first-class mail." As they already do in the American package-delivery system.

We'd love to see Congress muster the courage to consider such a practical solution.

No reasonable person believes the Postal Service should be "dismantled," no more than a newspaper should be dismantled by its own refusal to face reality. It's 2012. Email is here. Time for the Postal Service to deal with it.