Congress ducks postal reform

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is challenging the U.S. Postal Service’s move to halt Saturday delivery of first-class mail, effective in August, saying that’s a decision reserved for Congress.

The cost-cutting move is intended to save about $2 billion.

“Cutting down mail delivery to five days per week will not save the Postal Service from insolvency,” anyway, Sen. Reid added.

That’s probably true. But that does mean the postmaster shouldn’t even try?

An end to Saturday deliveries — along with closing inefficient post offices in small towns, and some redundant stations even in Las Vegas — was first suggested last year as part of a strategy to stanch the hemorrhaging at an agency that lost almost $16 billion in 2012.

The underlying problem of the Postal Service — other than the rise of e-mail — is the vastly expensive pension and retiree health care obligations which were imposed on it by past administrations. Some now suggest amending a 2006 law that forces the agency to pre-fund its pension plan.

But is the solution to allow the service to run up vast new obligations under unsustainable union contracts, without salting away funds to cover them? That’s a sure recipe for either vast tax hikes in the future, or broken promises to postal retirees.

The problems of the post office are a microcosm of the unwillingness of our elected delegates in Washington to endure a little political pain in order to adopt obvious and lasting solutions. Of course individual neighborhoods and hamlets are going to squawk if the Postal Service consolidates offices and trims services to become a modern, 21st century enterprise in competition with the internet. But would they rather the post office go bankrupt and shut its doors?

The USPS is actually profitable, absent its pension obligations. So we all know what would happen if the postal service were a private company. Its profitable assets and operations would be acquired by a new operator in bankruptcy, and both current employees and retirees — while they would take a haircut — would be guaranteed some part of what they’ve been promised, with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation presumably playing some role.

Sen. Reid and his brethren could broker just such a deal this year, putting the Postal Service on a sound financial footing for decades to come. That would require telling many of the parties they’re not going to get everything they want. All it would require are boldness and leadership.

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