To our readers: This commentary from Friday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch appears in place of the staff-written Spokesman-Review editorial because of staff vacations. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Spokesman-Review editorial board.
For the last four decades, letter carriers and other postal employees have had no more loyal friends than Lacy Clay and his father, former Rep. Bill Clay, two St. Louis Democrats who have represented Missouri’s 1st Congressional District since 1969. So when the time comes that a Clay says the Postal Service must “transform itself to survive as a viable entity,” things must be serious.
Recently the Postal Service announced that its deteriorating finances may force it to cut Saturday deliveries and close thousands of branches across the country. In July, the Postal Service won a place – alongside Medicare, Medicaid, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and federal oversight of food safety – on the Government Accountability Office’s list of “high-risk” government functions needing urgent restructuring.
The problems are easy to understand. In the last two years alone, mail volume in the United States has plummeted from approximately 210 billion pieces a year to 180 billion. In part, that’s because of the recession, but e-commerce also has played a significant role.
A large volume of personal letters and bills has moved to e-mail and electronic payments. In 2001, 80 percent of bills were paid by first-class mail. By 2008, that number had declined to 56 percent with 38 percent now paid electronically. All of that is revenue lost to the Postal Service.
Against these trends stands the nation’s largest civilian federal agency work force, about 633,000 career and 94,000 noncareer employees. They receive generous health and retirement benefits, but billions of dollars in pension liabilities are unfunded. The agency also maintains nearly 38,000 facilities nationwide.
The GAO recommends that the Postal Service consider reducing deliveries to five days a week, close or consolidate mail processing facilities with unused capacity – and above all reduce labor costs through early retirements and reduced health and life insurance benefits. These steps would need congressional approval.
Some perspective: The Postal Service has experienced about a $7 billion operating loss this year and is expected to lose another $7 billion next year. No small sums. But these numbers are quaint compared to the bushel loads of taxpayer funds used to keep the financial services industry afloat.
As policymakers weigh their options, they should realize that people, while they spend a lot of time online, still live in the real world. Business may be down, but 180 billion pieces of mail a year are vitally important. Even in the digital age, the Postal Service’s mission of “binding the nation together” with universal service, at fair and reasonable rates, must be preserved.