Critics predicting the demise of the U.S. Postal Service are wrong. The Postal Service is already dead. Despite a flood of sentimental nods from politicians to the history of American mail delivery, Congress is attempting little more than an election year resuscitation of an agency that has served its purpose and should be helped to expire.
Our Federal Government is not an employment service, not even for the nearly one-quarter million current and retired workers who belong to the American Postal Workers Union. Taxpayers do not fund government to find new ways to maintain fiscal drains, even if those drains have a history of being self-supporting. Unfortunately, dumping federal workers is bad election year politics even if keeping them on the payroll puts tax dollars at risk.
Harry Reid has pushed for a cyber security bill, spending on broadband infrastructure, and modernizing health care data, but when it comes to the Postal Service he sounds nostalgic for the days when mail was delivered with the best technology we had, a horse:
The post office was created in the days of quill and ink, and mail bags slung across horses.¹
Times change. We used to burn witches and bleed sick people, too. The fact that mail was delivered before we had electric lights has nothing to do with the fate of the Postal Service or the workers it employs, no matter how many years the agency served a vital purpose. There was little to misconstrue two years ago when the watchdog GAO reported that:
USPS’s business model is not viable due to USPS’s inability to reduce costs sufficiently in response to continuing mail volume and revenue declines.²
There is even less to misunderstand about a $12 billion loss from 2007-2009,³ or the fact that one-half of the Postal Service’s costs go to wages and another 23% to benefits,4 or that the pensions and benefits granted postal workers are a large part of the problem.
Taxpayers in Illinois could have saved Washington lawmakers a lot of time and effort troubleshooting this one. Harry Reid links the Postal Service to the fate of eight million workers who “…depend on a vibrant postal system.”,5 but regardless of whether the money comes from selling stamps or taking money from taxpayers, maintaining a government workforce for its own sake is an expensive loser of a proposition. The fixes we need for the Postal Service are not much different from what state and local governments are being forced to do with their public employees. The big difference is that state public employee crises are due to irresponsibility colliding with recession, while the Postal Service is doomed to go out of existence no matter what we do.
With technology spending all the rage among Capitol Hill Democrats, lawmakers who want to save the Postal Service should have a good, hard look at the clerks, mail carriers, sorters, and machine operators who are paid a median wage exceeding $53,000 annually.6 The Postal Service has tried to pay salaries and benefits equivalent to the private sector,7 but the cost of those benefits has skyrocketed. Defined benefit pension plans popular with public employees are a dinosaur not often seen in the private sector. When salaries and benefits are no longer affordable the business model that created them has to go.
The problem with the Postal Service is not how to keep it running. Senator Reid can ask small businesses how to do that because the Obama recession handed them the answer. Business owners cut workers, slashed salaries, trimmed or eliminated benefits, closed facilities, and found ways to do a job with less. Washington does not exist to keep people employed providing outmoded services. Retaining unaffordable employees for a dying agency is nothing less than bad government. The real issue is not how to save the jobs of postal workers, but how to prevent Congress from turning the Postal Service’s problems into our problem. If we make the wrong decision and decide to keep this dying beast alive as long as possible, sooner or later taxpayers will be handed the bill.