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How Darrell Issa and the Right Are Planning to Kill the U.S. Post Office

The Postal Service faces a threat greater than email or economics: Politics.
 
 
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This story was originally published at Salon.

After a stopgap measure last year, Congress will once again debate whether the United States Postal Service as we know it can survive.  The better question is: Will Congress let it?

The U.S. Postal Service is  at risk of defaulting on healthcare obligations or exceeding its debt limit by the end of the year. Last month, USPS management  unveiled a “Path to Profitability” that would eliminate over a hundred thousand jobs, end Saturday service and loosen overnight delivery guarantees. The Postal Service also proposes to shutter thousands of post offices.  “Under the existing laws, the overall financial situation for the Postal Service is poor,” says CFO Joe Corbett.  Republicans have been more dire, and none more so than Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, who  warned of a “crisis that is bringing USPS to the brink of collapse.”

Listening to Issa, you’d never know that the post office’s immediate crisis is largely of Congress’s own making.  Conservatives aren’t wrong to say that the shift toward electronic mail – what USPS calls “e-diversion” – poses a challenge for the Postal Service’s business model.  (The recent drop-off in mail is also a consequence of the recession-induced drop in advertising.)

But even so, in the first quarter of this fiscal year, the post office  would have made an operational profit, if not for a 75-year healthcare “pre-funding” mandate that applies to no other public or private institution in the United States.

Warren Gunnels, aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, calls that mandate “the poison pill that has hammered the Postal Service … over 80 percent of the Postal Service deficit since that was enacted was entirely due to the pre-funding requirement.”

This death hug was part of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which was  passed on a voice vote by a lame duck Republican Congress in 2006.   As I’ve reported, the mandate required the Postal Service, over 10 years, to pre-fund healthcare benefits for the next 75.  This unique burden costs USPS $5.5 billion a year. The new law also restricted the Postal Service’s ability to raise postage rates, or to provide “nonpostal services” that, in an e-diversion era, could be key to its future.  American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey says the bill was designed “by those people who hate government … to destroy the Postal Service.  And that’s what they did.”

The Postal Service has long been required to provide “universal service”: delivering to all 151 million addresses in the United States. Conservatives  promise that private companies could serve the Postal Service’s function more efficiently, but when it’s their money on the line, the private companies themselves aren’t always so sure. Some of the packages sent through UPS or FedEx are actually delivered by the Postal Service, because those companies save money by  contracting with USPS to serve more remote customers.

The Postal Service fulfills its mandate without direct government funding.  Faced with right-wing warnings about bailouts, the postal worker union this week is running a  new round of TV ads reminding taxpayers that USPS is funded entirely by fees, not taxes.  Guffey says the union — the largest of four representing post office workers — will likely hold rallies on next month’s Tax Day to drive home the same point.

Issa and other Republicans have been insisting for years that to stay solvent, USPS needs to make big cuts. In 2010, Issa  told the postmaster general at a congressional hearing that the Postal Service has “more or less a third more people than you need. He   warned in an Op-Ed that “Allowing USPS to postpone billions in obligations just makes a bailout easier.” In a December Op-Ed, Issa  compared continuing Saturday mail service to “asking us to revive the Pony Express.”

 
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