It may seem like the United States Postal Service is unwilling to adapt to a world of declining mail volume and increased digital communication. But the real obstacle in the way of true reform aren’t the folks running the postal service itself. It’s their bosses in the U.S. Congress.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is like a man waiting for a package that never arrives. Donahoe, who has led the U.S.P.S. since 2010, has over the past few years made numerous proposals to get the money-losing postal service back in the black. He’s suggested closing post offices, modernizing post offices, “village” post offices, increased postal rates, decreased services, a reduced workforce, and a number of digital approaches involving tracking packages, QR codes, and mobile solutions.
But there’s only so much the Post Office can do on its own to reduce the billions it loses every year. (Last year it lost $16 billion.) Congress holds all the cards, and that became increasingly clear this week. If the U.S.P.S. is ever going to break even, Congress will need to pass some comprehensive reform legislation.
In February, Donahoe announced that the postal service would eliminate Saturday delivery, essentially challenging Congress to specifically require 6-day delivery. But last month, Congress passed a continuing resolution prohibiting 5-day delivery. Afterwards, a Government Accountability Office report stated that current law required the post office to deliver six days a week, and the U.S.P.S. board of governors decided Wednesday to “delay implementation of its new delivery schedule until legislation is passed that provides the Postal Service with the authority to implement a financially appropriate and responsible delivery schedule.”
This isn’t the first time Congress has stymied the Post Office’s plans to reform, either through action or inaction, and it likely won’t be the last. Below are three other ways Congress has halted postal reform.
- Congressional inaction: Pre-retiree health care. The costliest problem for the U.S.P.S. is the Congressional mandate that it pre-fund healthcare for future retirees to the tune of around $5.5 billion annually. Of the $15.9 billion the postal service lost last year, $11.1 billion was caused by two defaulted payments to the health benefits fund. (Most of the remaining $5 billion was due to lost revenue from lower mail volume.) The House hasn’t taken any action on healthcare funding, while the Senate passed a bill last spring that would allow the post office to reduce its workforce from 550,000 to 450,000 and recoup a projected $11 billion surplus from a separate federal pension fund.
- Congressional disapproval: Closing post offices. Postmaster General Donahoe sought to close around 4,000 post offices to reduce costs, but after objections from a number of House members from rural districts, the Senate passed legislation forbidding the closure of any post office that’s more than 10 miles from another branch. Soon after, Donahoe announced that the post offices on the chopping block would remain open but with shorter hours and reduced services.
- Congressional inaction: Shipping beer and wine. One way the post office is hoping to recoup some of its lost revenue is through the shipment of alcohol. The post office is legally barred from shipping “all spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented or other intoxicating liquors of any kind” thanks to a 1909 temperance law, according to the post office’s legal department. The postmaster general is trying to get that law overturned as well, and the Senate has passed legislation to do so. But, once again, the House has yet to take action.
But let’s look on the bright side. It’s not as if Congress can’t get any postal legislation passed. According to the Courier Express and Postal Observer blog, “in each of the past five Congresses over 15% of all bills passed and signed into law named a Post Office.” And according to ABC News, the House introduced 60 bills last year to rename post offices.