The U.S. Postal Service that delivers the mail six days a week through rain, sleet, heat and snow faces a far greater threat: oceans of red ink. Its business is down 22 percent from five years ago, and it faces a $5.5 billion payment to finance retiree health care at the end of the month. Cutbacks already have forced the closings of post offices in Tampa Bay and across the country, and more spending reductions are on the way. Congress should act immediately to stabilize the postal service's $9.2 billion deficit and preserve a still vital institution of American life since Benjamin Franklin served as the nation's first postmaster in 1775.
The U.S. Postal Service always has been something of an odd duck of government. Since 1970, the agency has been an independent branch of the federal government dependent on postage fees to fund its operations while still subject to congressional oversight. In recent years, its once dominant market share eroded as consumers became more reliant on e-mail and e-commerce while private carriers with lower employee expenses wooed away package delivery services.
To be sure, the USPS has contributed to its own financial problems. Its employees enjoy more generous health and pension benefits than other federal employees. But the Postal Service also is hamstrung by its legislative mandate, which prevents it from branching out into other potentially lucrative and competitive services. It can't accept advertising on its trucks or postal facilities without prior congressional approval. At the very least, the postal service should be allowed to compete on a more level playing field.
To stanch the financial hemorrhaging, the Postal Service has announced the closing of 3,700 offices and floated the possibility of abandoning Saturday mail delivery, which is better than some alternatives. And without congressional intervention, as many as 120,000 workers, about one-fifth of the agency's work force, could be laid off, hardly the kind of blow the nation needs in this economy. The demise of the Postal Service would have dire consequences for millions of Americans without access to computers or e-mail who rely on the daily mail delivery to communicate.
More cuts and reductions in services are on the way. First-class mail is likely to be more slowly delivered, and more facilities — including a processing center in St. Petersburg — are expected to be closed. Some might argue the U.S. Postal Service is an archaic, inefficient government agency that deserves to fade away if it cannot compete with private business. But it provides a unique service that still touches virtually every American household. Even in this high-tech era it remains an essential communication link — particularly for families without computers, Internet service or the capacity to pay for private shipping.