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Saturday mail is safe, but what a whopping cost

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - 12:01 am

USPS needs the flexibility to adapt to a changing world.

Fort Wayne postal workers Sunday joined in the pointless nationwide rally for continued six-day mail service participated in by thousands of mail carriers all across the nation. It was pointless not because Congress will not heed their plea – quite the contrary. Congress had already acted. On Wednesday, the Senate passed legislation apparently forbidding ending Saturday mail delivery. On Thursday, the House approved it and sent it to President Obama's desk.

So the United States Postal Service's big, fat financial mess will continue and get worse and worse. The USPS lost $16 billion last year by continuing to provide a service that fewer and fewer people want or need. Cutting back to five-day service would save about $2 billion a year. Eliminating some post offices, which Congress also dislikes, would save some more.

The postal service is in the awkward position of being an independent agency that Congress still has control of. And so far Congress has been unwilling to either give USPS the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions or take action itself to make the necessary difficult choices. So the losses will continue to grow by $25 million a day, which might require a bailout of more than $47 billion by 2017. Guess who will foot that bill.

Here we see in microcosm how dysfunctional the federal government has become. Members of Congress will not vote to end the most obsolete and overpriced service on earth if it would cost them a few votes. And, really, what does it matter? The money can be borrowed or just printed, and the bill won't come due until some future date.

Polls have showed increasing public support for five-day delivery, with a majority now saying it wouldn't bother them. Still, those who provide the service are understandably determined to keep providing it. “If we don't deliver on Saturday, somebody else will,” a Fort Wayne letter carrier told a local TV station. “Some other business will pick up the slack and be there … .”

Yes, it will, just the way the private carriers did when package delivery was opened up to competition. And more people than ever will use the Internet and their mobile devices to replace traditional mail. It's called progress, which can't be stopped.

A small and shrinking percentage of the population – some seniors, the poor, those in remote areas – lack access to postal service alternatives. It is right to want to save the USPS' core function of serving those people – that's one of the legitimate roles for the government to have. But it can't do that unless it is allowed to change its mission and approach to survive a changing world.