When the U.S. Postal Service announced in February that it would end Saturday mail delivery this summer, Americans reacted with a mixture of wistfulness and resignation. Yes, it was sad that the mail carrier wouldn't be dropping off letters on Saturday anymore, but scaling back to five days was a necessary concession to the agency's financial problems and a reflection of changes in communication wrought by the Internet.
But not everyone saw it that way: The unions representing postal employees and their champions on Capitol Hill were especially determined to block the change, and a continuing resolution passed by Congress last month prohibited the USPS from curtailing service. On Wednesday, the Board of Governors of the Postal Service bowed to Congress' will, while warning that it will be impossible for the agency to meet its cost-reduction goals without changes in the delivery schedule.
Unless Congress is willing to approve an infusion of government funds for the service -- which receives no taxpayer support for its day-to-day operations -- it should back off and allow the Postal Service to introduce sensible efficiencies. By moving to five-day delivery of mail (while continuing parcel delivery six days a week), the Postal Service hoped to save $2 billion a year. That would be a significant contribution to the service's solvency.
Before the advent of email, eliminating one day's mail delivery would have imposed a significant hardship on households. That wouldn't be the case today, when most Americans can communicate on their telephones as well as their computers.
The advent of email and private delivery companies have deprived the Postal Service of revenue. That fact, combined with the Postal Service's responsibilities for retiree health benefits, has already required it to make significant cutbacks. Even so, the agency lost nearly $16 billion last year and the Board of Governors has directed management to try to reopen contract negotiations with unions.
Although critics of the elimination of Saturday mail couched their objections in terms of customer service, much of the opposition actually reflects the desire of workers and their union to preserve hundreds of thousands of relatively well-paying government jobs. But the Postal Service's purpose isn't to serve as an employment agency; it's to provide an appropriate level of service to its millions of customers. The scope and nature of that service needs to be reconsidered, perhaps radically. Rightly or wrongly, Congress has entrusted the responsibility for that reappraisal to a quasi-independent agency that is responsible for managing its own financial affairs. Unless Congress wants to start paying the bills again, it shouldn't prevent the Postal Service from trying to make ends meet.
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