U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced Wednesday that the U.S. Postal Service will stop delivering mail (but not packages) on Saturdays starting the week of Aug. 5, saving the agency about $2 billion a year. A lot of questions have arisen about the move — Is $2 billion enough to dent the USPS's big deficits? Will cutting Saturdays actually cost the post office more money, as postal unions, paper manufacturers, and other affected business argue? — but the most immediate and pressing question is this: Will Congress quash the plan before it begins?
Here's the problem: In 1970, Congress largely uncoupled the USPS from the federal government, making it a nominally independent quasi-government agency instead of the federal cabinet-level department it had been since Ben Franklin was postmaster general. The idea was to let it operate more like a business, free of taxpayer subsidies (since the early 1980s) and political interference. "But, of course, Congress was preternaturally incapable of keeping its paws off the Postal Service, essentially insisting on maintaining ultimate political control over all important decisions of postal policy," says John Tierney at Salon. Since 1981, Congress has ordered the Postal Service to deliver mail six days a week, and it has repeatedly shot down the USPS's request to shave off a day, or at least failed to act on it, as happened in the last Congress.
Well, the USPS says it believes we're now in a moment when "the law no longer applies," says Ron Nixon in The New York Times. The current continuing resolution to fund the government through March 27 doesn't explicitly bar five-day delivery, Donahoe argues, and he hopes the next spending measure from Congress will specifically allow the USPS shift. Not everyone in Congress agrees with Donahoe's legal analysis.
This is a bold move by Donahoe, but a necessary one, says Reuters' Felix Salmon. Abolishing Saturday delivery is just one part of the USPS's "detailed plan for becoming fully self-reliant over the next few years," but every part of the plan, "by law, requires congressional buy-in." Instead of helping the USPS right its ship, Congress is "just making matters worse, unhelpfully micromanaging everything from postage rates to delivery schedules to health-care contributions," making it pay about $5.5 billion into a retirement fund for employees it hasn't even hired yet.
That's why I love the idea of the Post Office doing something that's clearly illegal, putting the ball squarely in Congress's court. The idea is both delicious and dangerous: go ahead an implement the plan whether Congress likes it or not. And then dare them to bring down the hammer, or simply capitulate to the inevitable.... The risks of this move are obvious: Congress is the government, and has awesome powers, should it choose to use them. But there's a very good chance, here, that Congress will blink first, and end up giving the Post Office at least some of what it wants. Including five-day delivery. Sometimes, you've got to get tough with those legislators. [Reuters]
I'm certainly cheering on Donahoe, says Tierney at Salon. "He's aware that he probably doesn't have the legal authority to take this step without congressional approval," but Congress badly needs the kick in the pants. "To put it baldly, Congress is full of cowards," politicians who have "steered the agency into a ditch" by pandering to their individual constituencies at the expense of the general public, which is "less attentive or aware of how they're being screwed."
What the postmaster general did today is try to change the "scope of the conflict" over postal policy. He knows that if he expands the audience for the coming conflict over policy — something he surely achieved by his announcement today — he improves the odds of his winning. The underdog or expected loser in a political fight is always wise to try to expand the audience in the hope of changing the result. He's not likely to win on this. Congress will probably do what it has done on countless other matters of postal policy; it will step in and say "no".... And the Postal Service will go down the drain. [Salon]
It's easy to see why the USPS is "telling Congress to take a hike," says Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. And whether its successful or not, "maybe this is our future: Congress has become so dysfunctional that other agencies are going to start shrugging their shoulders and just getting on with business." That's certainly one way to force Congress out of its gridlocked stupor. "At least it will force them to pay attention."
"Congressional incompetence" did create this mess, but cutting out Saturdays isn't necessarily the solution, says Annie-Rose Strasser at ThinkProgress. If Congress simply repealed its onerous 75-year pension requirement, the USPS would be in the black. "Postal access is, ultimately, a rights issue for rural Americans; since they live in areas where internet coverage is inconsistent, post office closures and slowed-down delivery can mean big limitations on communication," even increased inequality.
Approving a five-day delivery schedule is the least Congress should do, but it won't be enough, says David Lazarus at The Los Angeles Times. As it is currently structured, the Postal Service "will never again be able to meet its legal obligation to pay its own way." It has to adapt itself to the digital age, and Congress has to help. Maybe it could be in charge of delivering fast broadband internet to rural communities. An easier step would be to stop delivery in rural communities, reviving the idea of people picking up their mail at the post office. And by all means, "let's overhaul our antiquated post offices" — change doesn't have to be bleak.
Follow the Starbucks example. Convert them into coffee shops that allow people to go online whenever they please. Sure, you could still mail a package or buy stamps. But you could also get a decent cup of government-brewed java and kick back with your tablet or laptop. In the 21st century, "going postal" shouldn't be pejorative. It should be cool. [Los Angeles Times]