Post office stall

The U.S. Postal Service no longer receives direct operating subsidies from taxpayers – it’s supposed to pay its own way. But it still operates under congressional oversight, and that can spell “politics.”

Because more people every year switch to the Internet to send correspondence and pay bills, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has called the Postal Service’s business model “broken.” Without cutbacks, Mr. Donahoe forecasts annual losses exceeding $21 billion by 2016.

As many as 3,000 mostly rural post offices have so little work that it could be accomplished in a two-hour day – though of course they’re open far longer. The postmaster is ready to start closing redundant regional mail processing centers and small rural post offices as of May 15.

“Not so fast!” responded members of the U.S. Senate, afraid they’d face election-year outrage in Hooterville if Millie the postmistress had to take an early retirement.

So, on April 25, the Senate voted 62-37 to block the immediate closing of up to 252 mail processing centers and 3,700 post offices – delaying by years Mr. Donahoe’s sensible plan to save some $6.5 billion a year.

This cynical Senate move would place a one-year moratorium on closing rural post offices. Even after that, offices would generally be protected from closure if the closest mail facility is more than 10 miles away.

Why? These aren’t water stations for some kind of desert marathon. This piece of election-year cynicism means post offices will stay open in whistle stops where the train hasn’t stopped for 50 years. Yet these same senators still want to pretend they’re struggling to rein in excess spending?

To pay for this politically motivated stall, the Senate used a bit of budgetary legerdemain, authorizing the Postal Service to use $11 billion in earlier “overpayments” to a federal retirement fund, giving the USPS the liquidity – on paper – to still finance buyouts for 100,000 postal employees.

But congressional promises to cut spending “next year” deserve about as much credence as a kid’s promise to clean his room “next week.”

The Senate bill faces an uncertain future. The House version would create a national commission with the power to scrap no-layoff clauses in employee contracts.

Yes, the $11 billion stopgap saves all four mail processing centers in Nevada, along with local post offices in Gabbs (population 300), Denio (population 160), Lund and Silver Peak.

But Nevada has gained more from the rise of the Internet – think warehouses for online retailers – than it has lost, just as the automobile created more jobs than those it cost in the livery stable and buggy-whip trades.

The effort to stop the wheels of time can be costly, as well as fruitless. Make the cuts to the Postal Service now.

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