Postal Policymaking: A Political Laboratory

By John Tierney

Curiously, at a time when the thoughts of most people in the United States have been focused -- properly and understandably! -- on Michele Bachmann, some folks have been thinking about postal policy.  Go figure. 

Monday's Wall Street Journal carried a front-page article chronicling some of the financial problems of the Postal Service and the rural residents who risk losing their little local post offices as the USPS tries to cut costs. The next day, Uri Friedman posted an article on The Atlantic Wire, titled "How to Save the Postal Service." Friedman usefully pulled together a few ideas from disparate sources about how postal policy should (and shouldn't) be fixed. 

This is all to the good. Apart from the fact that the Postal Service is in big trouble and needs fixing, here's why it's useful to think about postal policy: the Postal Service is one of the few governmental organizations in the United States that directly touches the lives of most of us on an almost daily basis. As such, it provides a perfect "laboratory" (but not necessarily a very safe one) for seeing if our lab technicians -- members of Congress -- have the nerve to stand there and throw large grains of fiscal austerity into a big vat of human wants.  As any student of political chemistry knows, that's a formula for serious pyrotechnics! 
Republicans say, and they're probably right, that we've got to cut spending for federal programs in the discretionary portion of the budget -- basically all domestic programs that do anything for anybody: everything from cancer research to workplace safety inspections, from farm subsidies to community health programs.  Everything except entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.  Not even defense expenditures are to be held sacrosanct. Everybody knows and admits that this will be difficult.  But nobody is really owning up to how difficult.

Enter the Postal Service.  It's screwed up.  Mail volume is falling.  Its deficits are rising.  The postal system is slowly circling the drain. Why?  The proximate causes are manifold: email is sucking the life out of first-class mail; there's a preposterous requirement that the Service prefund retirement benefits for employees it hasn't even hired yet; etc.  But the real problem is that the Postal Service labors under the burden of accumulated obligations.  Over our nation's history, the postal system has been used by Congress to fulfill a wide variety of social and political objectives beyond the delivery of letters and packages: frequent, speedy and consistent delivery; universally available letter-mail services at reasonable and uniform rates; support of a large and well-paid work force; continuation of an expensive rural network; maintenance of numerous collection and distribution points; etc.  Quite a package!  As virtually every article about the Postal Service points out, the system has been used to "knit the nation together."  That's all fine and well, but the cost of the yarn is now making this cozy national sweater unsustainably expensive.

The problem here isn't that nobody knows how to produce an efficient and cost-effective mail-delivery system.  That wouldn't be difficult -- at least, not if the Postal Service operated in a political vacuum. To operate the mail system in a more economically rational and sustainable way, postal executives would tailor services to economic demands.  They could easily keep rates low for those who generate most of the mail and who pay the bulk of the system's costs (American businesses), while providing reliable services, responsive to business needs.  But they would do so by curtailing or eliminating traditional services now maintained to meet the political demands of powerful labor unions and heavily subsidized residential constituencies.  Do Americans really need residential delivery to the door, six days a week?  Of course not.  Nor do we need post offices at every little rural crossroads, at least not if regular and satisfactory services could be provided by alternative methods at lower costs.  

But whenever the Postal Service has tried to save the whole system by cutting its nails (much less cutting off a limb), members of Congress, who ultimately control all postal policy, squeal like cats on a hot tin roof and prevent postal executives from acting.*  They're afraid of the electoral consequences of imposing sacrifice on their constituents and on well-organized postal workers.  But the world turns, and rural residents may simply have to get by with alternate, but adequate, forms of service. People in cities, towns, and suburbs will have to get by with less frequent residential delivery. (That's okay with me. Frankly, I don't understand the firestorm occasioned by proposals to cut back from six days to five days; couldn't we all do just fine with getting mail three days a week?)  The list goes on.  We no longer have the luxury of using the Postal Service to help "knit the nation together."  Other things do that now. The Postal Service will soon go the way of the woolly mammoth, to which it is often likened, if we don't stop expecting it to perform functions for which it's no longer appropriate.

If members of Congress continue to be unable to bring themselves to allocate some pain to us on something that we ultimately can handle with a bit of Tylenol, how can they possibly make the really hard decisions that may require morphine?  A big part of the problem is that it's their pain that they're worried about, not ours.  Legislators are fixated on avoiding the hard decisions that might negatively affect their reelection chances.  We're never going to solve any of our acute enduring problems as long as we have a Congress full of wannabe legislative careerists. 

Postal service?  A relatively easy problem to fix.  Political cravenness?  A much bigger problem -- and our ultimate one. Representative democracy works beautifully when the economy is flourishing and times are flush.  Elected officials, as I noted previously in this space, are superb at distributing benefits.  But allocating sacrifice to others is not their strong suit. How are our current problems going to be solved unless they somehow steel themselves to the task?  We've all got to bear some pain.  

Meanwhile, maybe Members of Congress should appropriate themselves an allowance for protective laboratory goggles. I'd support that.
* The sad thing about that is that in the early 1970s, Congress dealt with a postal crisis of that time by transforming the governing arrangements of the postal system with the objective of freeing it from political constraints so that it would be free to operate in a more "businesslike" fashion.  The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 changed the postal service from the old cabinet-level Post Office Department into an "independent establishment" of the federal government -- not quite a government corporation, but very much like one.  But the "freeing from political constraints" part of the reform was all pretense; Congress insisted on maintaining ultimate control over all important decisions of postal policy. So the autonomy of postal executives still doesn't extend to important decisions about the scope and form of postal services.  Their hands are continually stayed by members of Congress who fear that the political costs to designing a more rational and sustainable system would be too great.