Why Congress should not get out of the way of the Postal Service

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BY MARK JAMISON

News that Ron Johnson, the Tea Party favorite from Wisconsin, will be taking over as chair of the Senate committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs has caused an overwhelming sense of panic among progressives and postal workers.  Johnson will control oversight of the Postal Service in the Senate.

There may be good reason to think this has the makings of disaster.  Johnson is on the record stating that it would be a good idea if the Postal Service went into bankruptcy and got privatized.  His training is in accounting, but he has refused, with an aggressive ignorance, to acknowledge the basic tenets of accounting.  When witnesses come before his committee, he bullies them and waves his arm abrasively.  His dislike of unions is so intense he’s willing to set aside his worship of the business principles of a contract to concoct a bankruptcy scheme to abrogate postal labor agreements. 

But is the coming of Ron Johnson any reason to panic?

Tom Coburn, the current ranking member on the committee, has said virtually all of the same things as Johnson (in his quiet, deadly way).   Several of the other Republicans on the committee — Rand Paul, Mike Enzi, and Kelly Ayotte — have also said many of the same things Johnson has.  All of them have shown a disdain for the Postal Service as an institution.  All of them have questioned the Postal Service role as a national infrastructure.

Never mind too that Tom Carper, the Democrat from Delaware and current chair of the committee, has endorsed virtually every cut, every closure, every act of outsourcing that PMG Donahoe has engaged in or even imagined.  On postal matters, his views are not that far from Johnson’s. 

 

It could be the end

While Ron Johnson will probably just carry on like Carper, Coburn, and the other Republicans on the committee overseeing the Postal Service, the specter of Senator Johnson as chair is haunting progressives. 

The sky is falling at Think Progress, where Kira Lerner tells us that with Johnson “it could be the end of the Postal Service as we know it.”  Lerner therefore hopes that Congress passes legislation — any legislation at all, bad as it might be — before Johnson can pass something worse.

But how likely is that the any legislation to come out of a lame duck session will be any good?  Anything likely to come out of the Senate would carve in stone the current agenda of cuts to the workforce, reductions in service, and secret NSA agreements.  Plus, any bill passed by the Senate would have to go to conference with whatever Darrell Issa comes up with in the House.  The result will be further degradation of the postal network.  There’s little chance it will make those who care about postal services in this country very happy. 

Over at Daily Kos, Laura Clawson seems just as frightened of Johnson as Lerner is.  Faced with Johnson’s statement that the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process, Clawson says, “Another solution is for Congress to get out of the way of the Postal Service making money providing needed services like banking for tens of millions of people who don't have access to financial institutions.”

Postal banking might be useful for the millions of unbanked citizens, but it’s worth giving this notion of “getting Congress out of the way” a bit more thought.  The idea seems to be almost everyone’s answer for what ails the Postal Service.  Blaming Congress is apparently something that folks everywhere on the political spectrum can agree on. 

That should come as no surprise, considering that Congress has become less popular than a shady used car salesman.  But would all be right with the Postal Service if Congress just got out of the way?

The answer to that depends a lot on what you want the Postal Service to do with its newfound freedom.

 

Getting Congress out of the way

For many people, “getting Congress out of the way” means that the Postal Service should be free to compete.  It should be allowed to deliver wine and beer, it should be allowed to get into the banking business, and it should be allowed to expand its products and services in many other ways now prevented by law.  Even Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the most enlightened members of Congress, likes to say that the Postal Services needs to be free to compete so that it can increase revenues and sustain itself. 

That all sounds fine — unless you’re one of the companies that has to compete with the Postal Service.  In fact, one of the reasons that legislation has been stalled for the past four years is there are many interests who don’t want to free the Postal Service to compete.  The mailers want cheap rates, the package industry wants a cheap way to fill the last-mile, ideologues on the Right want to kill labor, legislators with rural constituencies want to protect the infrastructure and services that benefit their communities.  Everybody wants something, but no one really wants competition. 

Other advocates of “getting Congress out of the way” have something else in mind.  They’re thinking about how Congress had made it difficult to close post offices, interfered with ending Saturday delivery, and tried to stop the closure of most mail processing plants and ending overnight delivery. 

For these folks — like the large mailers who think downsizing will keep their rates down —  getting Congress out of the way means giving the leaders of the Postal Service more freedom to do exactly what they have been doing for the past several years — closing plants, reducing service, and all the dismantling we’ve witnessed.  

Still another view of “getting Congress out of the way” involves ending the prefunding mandate, i.e., the law passed by Congress in 2006 (the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act) that unnecessarily requires the Postal Service to prefund its retiree health benefit fund (RHBF) to the tune of $5.5 billion a year.  According to this view, the main problem facing the Postal Service is that it’s running so deep in the red — a problem caused almost entirely by the RHBF payments.

But prefunding is not really the problem.  It’s just an excuse.  The Board of Governors and the senior leadership in L’Enfant Plaza have been using the crisis created by the RHBF payments — along with the drop in volume associated with the Great Recession — as an excuse to advance an agenda they have long held dear.  It’s an agenda that goes back way, long before prefunding became an issue.

 

Transforming the Postal Service

The corporate elite has sought a more corporatized Postal Service, free of regulation and oversight, at least since the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, if not before.  Postal management has consistently helped achieve that goal.  Since 2003 when former PMG Jack Potter offered his Transformation Plan, the goal of the Postal Service has been to do exactly what Mr. Donahoe has done over the last five years.

The management of the Postal Service does not want the agency under its stewardship to function as an institution that serves the needs of millions of average Americans.  It wants to be a corporate player.  So when the leaders of the Postal Service talk about getting Congress out of the way, they’re saying they don’t want government oversight and regulation to interfere with allowing them to turn the Postal Service into a corporation — more specifically, a delivery company.

To that end, then, postal leadership has been very clear about wanting to jettison the retail network, especially thousands of small post offices that don’t make significant profits but that have been essential to rural communities across this country.  Donahoe, his predecessors, his enablers on the BOG, and politicians of both parties have sought to reduce employment, undermine labor agreements, degrade the mail processing network, as part of this move toward a corporate model. They continue to sign secret agreements with companies like Amazon, Staples, UPS, and FedEx while reducing service standards for the American public. They have abandoned any pretense of “binding the nation together.”

Yes, the 2006 PAEA put what seemed to be a big impediment in the way of postal progress in the form of the RHBF prefunding payments.  But a closer look at the law reveals all sorts of ways in which Congress “got out of the way” — with some very problematic results.

PAEA divided products into two categories, which has led to the Postal Service’s practice of moving products from the more regulated market-dominant category into the competitive category, which is less regulated and often shrouded in secrecy.  PAEA has fostered more Negotiated Service Agreements, which has resulted in the likelihood of more, not less, monopoly in the package delivery market. The rate cap regime set up by PAEA may have looked like a grand advance, supposedly creating a predictable rate system, but it further endorsed the idea that the Postal Service exists for the benefit of stakeholders, primarily a narrow sector of the mailing industry, and not as an infrastructure designed to benefit the American economy and the American people as a whole.

 

The public good

The problem is that government — and the Postal Service is a legitimate function of government — does not exist to compete.  Government exists to facilitate commerce, communication, transportation, and all the rest.  One of its main functions is to build infrastructures that promote the general well being of both the economy and the civic space.  The postal network is one of the government’s great infrastructures.  It’s not supposed to be a competitive player in the marketplace.

We don’t expect highway systems to compete.  We don’t expect water and sewer systems to compete. We expect these infrastructures to function well and to extend access and service broadly.

The postal network, even as technologies change, serves as a fundamental infrastructure for both information and goods. The Founding Fathers saw the value in that sort of infrastructure, and that view is no less valid today.  The network that we have created can and should adapt, but it remains essential.

We have lost our appreciation for public goods and the public square.  All around us we see the basic fundamental structures of our society being captured by private, rent-seeking interests.  We are told that our schools and universities would be better if they competed — in other words, if we introduced the profit motive. The same thing goes for our prisons and law enforcement.   Everything will supposedly work better if private enterprise takes over.

This kind of thinking reduces everything in life to a single paradigm of profit and loss.  It co-opts and perverts words like “effective” and “efficient,” reducing their meanings to a very narrow slice of human experience.

But different elements of society have different goals, different ways of measuring success, efficiency, and effectiveness.  Trying to stuff everything into a model of competition simply doesn’t work.  Businesses should pursue profits, schools should educate, infrastructures should facilitate.

The postal network has been built over generations to serve the American people.  It has done that job well by connecting every corner of America, by maintaining the most affordable rates in the world, and by adapting to changing technologies. It has done this while providing a sense of identity to thousands of communities and meaningful employment to hundreds of thousands workers.  

Yet in spite of all the Postal Service has accomplished, its leaders remain committed to turning the Postal Service from useful infrastructure into nothing more than a delivery company.

 

Doing the work of the people

The Postal Service doesn’t need to be set loose, and it doesn’t need to be freed from Congressional control.  Giving the leaders of the Postal Service a free hand is not going to help matters.   They’ll continue doing exactly what they have been doing. 

Instead, the Postal Service needs to be properly managed, properly maintained, and properly directed towards fulfilling its role as a basic national infrastructure, owned by all Americans.

The problem is not that Congress needs to get out of the way but that Congress needs to do its job. 

Congress needs to ensure that the Postal Service operates under a robust universal service mandate that is clearly defined.  It needs to ensure that the management structure of the Postal Service works for the American people, not its own agenda.  It needs to find appropriate means to maintain our existing postal infrastructure while adapting it to 21st century needs and technologies.  Congress needs to do its job and properly tend to and care for public goods and national assets.

The new Congress probably isn’t going to do any of those things, but passing bad legislation in a lame-duck session or giving the management of the Postal Service more freedom to degrade the institution is not going to solve anything.

[Mark Jamison is a retired postmaster for the US Postal Service.  He can be reached at Mij455@gmail.com.]
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