Post office shutdowns avoided. When will we have a frank discussion about the USPS?

Mary Potter (revised 5/30/12)

Post office shutdowns avoided. When will we have a frank discussion about the USPS?

Post offices are mandated in the US Constitution. When did we decide they should be profitable?


(Columbus,KY– May 10, 2012) - The news that the U. S. Postal Service will not be closing over 3600 post offices across the nation brought a sigh of relief to rural residents. Post offices in Columbus, Lovelaceville, Lynnville and Tiline in far western Kentucky were on the chopping block. For now, the small post offices are spared as a result of public pressure on their members of Congress which in turn put pressure on postal officials. 

The victory to keep small post offices open may be short lived as the same postal officials announced that they would cut hours of operation from full day service to two to six hours a day. At this writing, there is no word whether hours of operation would be standardized across small centers or operating hours set be on a case by case basis. 

Fewer hours of operation equals fewer hours to serve the public which equals public frustration leading to fewer customers. Residents unable to access their local post office will be forced to use full service centers, the internet or private carriers. All of which will provide more evidence to support the earlier decision to close small rural post offices. The new plan deserves to be met with protests from customers and postal workers.

The USPS and the Constitution

The US Postal Service’s woes stem from a misapprehension that the Postal Service (emphasis added) should be a money making proposition. The idea to convert the USPS into some quasi-governmental agency is lost in the mists of Congressional history. Somewhere along the way, Congress decided that mail should not be a right of Americans, but a self supporting business that must not cost the taxpayers a dime to remain in existence.

Old Ben Franklin, leader, lover, entrepreneur businessman, and father of the postal service should have done a double back flip and arose from the dead zombie like to choke the life out of this very bad idea.

The US Constitution that we all love to love sets out powers and commands to Congress. That hallowed document was designed to create the institutions necessary to a democracy. Not only are there three co-equal branches of government, but there's a list of what future legislators must do.

In the laundry list of Article I, Section 8, the Framers enumerated democracy's vital services. One can see the elderly Franklin sitting at a desk, gouty foot propped up, nodding sagely as his beloved postal system forever becomes part of the America he helped to create. Old Ben’s influence is so pervasive that the term for legislators getting to use the USPS free is called “franking.”

The Founding Fathers knew that we would need “Post offices” to bind us together, citizen to citizen, citizen to government.

They knew we would need armed forces to keep us safe, a monetary system and uniform commerce, a plan for immigration and naturalization to grow our nation (or not),  civil and criminal justice systems to decide peaceful and not so peaceful acts by its residents.

Of all those named in Article I, Section 8, only the postal system is expected to support itself and be regulated by Congress and make money too. If the US Postal System was a private sector employer, it would be surpassed only by Wal-Mart. If listed on the Fortune 500, it would rank 28th in 2009. (USPS information cited in "Restructuring the US Postal Service" by Robert Carbaugh and Thomas Tenerelli, Cato Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter 2011)

Many agencies of the government charge fees. For example, obtaining a passport, becoming a US citizen, filing a lawsuit have fees attached. As does the USPS. Stamps are not free. Packages cost to ship. No one argues that the USPS should be free. Federal agencies may charge fees, but they live on federal funds and are governed by federal law and regulation. The USPS gets no federal money. It does gets a great deal of federal oversight!

Going through the oh-so-predictable process of running in a circle until we all fall down, proclaiming that the postal system is bankrupt and going out of business is getting frankly tiresome. There is an argument to be made that Congress improperly demanded that the USPS overpay retirement benefits and that is the source of its monetary shortfall. True or not, the retirement payments issue should be irrelevant.

Let us say what our elected officials ought to be saying out loud and often. Postal employees should be federal employees. Postal officials should be federal officials. Regulating a "quasi-governmental" operation without funding it makes no more sense than not allowing District of Columbia residents to have self determination. Just because we've been doing it this way for awhile doesn't make right. After all, the United States Postal Service is already under the thumb of Congress. Why not just make it a full fledged sibling of the other constitutionally created federal agencies?

The US Postal System has problems, with causes both internal and external.

Some stem from competition from internet usage and from independent carriers, like Fed Ex and UPS (which also avail themselves of the USPS and good for them). The USPS saw the internet coming, but failed to make a plan to capitalize on it. There was no reason way back when that email could not have an extension of .usps with charges for service going to the USPS instead of the present system of "free" email paid for by customers being aggravated by advertisers. At this point, it probably too late to jump on the email bandwagon, which, with texting, tweeting and facebook, is so yesterday’s news.

The USPS whines that they have to deliver to every address. Sure. That's a lot of miles driving to deliver the mail. Is the USPS considering using cost saving vehicles with alternative power systems to save on fuel costs? Not that we've heard. The USPS answer to its delivery problems is for Congress to tell it that it’s okay to stop serving customers who insist on doing what Americans have been doing since Plymouth Rock –living in places they want to live, even if inconvenient for being off the beaten track. Because serving the public is not cost effective.

If Congress wants to reform the US Postal System, then Congress should take a hard look at the top heavy management system. We’ve dealt with the postal system for years and watched incredibly bizarre rules billed as “efficiency tools” by postal managers inflicted on rank and file postal workers. Sadly, there is a reason "going postal" has a basis in fact. Working under intense pressure to perform while being micromanaged must create unbearable stress in postal workers.

Postal bosses follow carriers on their walking routes measuring their strides. Too many steps? Black mark.

Stopping to talk to customers along their route? Black mark.

Six pieces of mail in that envelope bearing one first class stamp?  Send it back "insufficient postage."

Postal boxes that don't fill up to expected levels get jerked out.Mail going across a small town? Truck it out to the processing center miles away. Then truck it back.

Do mail collection boxes have enough pieces of mail inside their bellies? No? Black mark. Count mail in each box. Record the number. Write report. Send report to headquarters. Review report. Send back report.

If enough pieces, repeat process periodically. If not - cart it off– even if it serves a population unable to travel to the centrally located post office.

Counting beans takes time. Counting beans takes money. Efficiency studies, while sometimes helpful, also cost money.

What to do?

Certainly we do not advocate an(other) out of control spending machine under the federal umbrella. Any libertarian can name off a list of agencies that overspend tax dollars. But Constitutional scholars should be looking hard at proposals to let the US Postal Service go bankrupt and disappear. The Framers gave us “Post offices” for a reason. It’s time we remembered they had good reasons and return the USPS to being a government agency all the time, not just when they fall short of profitability. 

The USPS can survive with adequate funding from sales of products and taxpayer dollars, efficient under-bearing management and regulation with the goal of making post offices the arm of the federal government it was designed to be. Only when there is a heart change in Washington will Ben Franklin’s bit of the US Constitution be preserved intact.

It’s as achievable a goal as the creation of our democratic republic was on September 17, 1787 when the US Constitution was signed into law.

We just need another Franklin to make it happen.