When the Framers created the office of postmaster general, they could not have imagined that one day Americans would rarely need to communicate by scrawling words on paper slips to be delivered by hired hand. Now the country maintains a vast organization of sorting plants, offices and mail carriers devoted to that slow and expensive process, and it's losing money. A lot of it: The U.S. Postal Service lost $15.9 billion last year, and it is losing billions more this year. On Friday it announced that it lost $740 million in the third quarter.
Lawmakers in Congress, though, have long resisted allowing the quasi-independent Postal Service to engage in serious cost-cutting, even as communication becomes ever more digital. Congressional balking has foiled efforts to restructure the service's labor costs, limit Saturday mail delivery and close branches. But the recalcitrance may finally end, if some promising signs in the House and Senate bear out.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., last month passed a postal reform bill out of his panel that, while controversial, moves closer to Democratic positions than his previous proposals did. Meanwhile, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., last week struck a deal with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., his GOP counterpart, on a bill in their chamber. Neither the House nor the Senate bill is perfect, but the willingness of the key parties to recognize the problem and adjust their proposals toward each other is a refreshingly positive omen.
The two plans have important similarities. Both, for example, foresee the Postal Service reducing time-consuming "to the door" mail service, replacing it with delivery to curbside boxes or community "clusterboxes." Issa's bill is the better of the two, because it allows the Postal Service to more rapidly adapt to reality. The Carper-Coburn bill would prohibit the closure of sorting plants for two years. Issa's wouldn't. Issa would allow the Postal Service to adopt a five-day delivery schedule for mail -- though not for medication or packages --- immediately. Carper and Coburn's plan would delay that obvious reform by at least a year.
There are other serious differences. But we hope that a spirit of compromise and common sense continues to prevail as both proposals make their way through their respective chambers and, ultimately, to a conference to reconcile the two. At the least, the Senate should not give in to any special-interest pressure to make the Carper-Coburn plan any weaker.
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