Tough decisions are in the mail

The U.S. Postal Service, its cost-cutting efforts stymied by Congress at every turn, has finally taken matters into its own hands. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced a plan to cancel Saturday mail delivery starting in August, while keeping post offices open and continuing to deliver packages on Saturdays.

That should get Congress off its duff. Postal Service overhaul legislation has been languishing for too long.

Upstate New York's representatives on both sides of the aisle were quick to say they'll fight the cuts. That may be popular with constituents, postal workers and the postal workers' union, but it ignores some dire realities.

The Postal Service lost $15.9 billion last year -- triple its losses from the year before. About $11 billion of that was because the agency defaulted on payments for future retiree health benefits -- a requirement Congress imposes on no other government agency.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service's business has been disrupted permanently by the Internet. While the growth of online shopping boosted package deliveries 14 percent since 2010, the volume of first-class mail dropped 20 percent during that time as people shift to email and online bill-paying. The price of a first-class stamp recently rose to 46 cents, and rate hikes come so frequently they don't even print the price on the stamps anymore.

As the post office's financial troubles deepened, it sought permission from Congress to deliver five days a week instead of six and to close some rural post offices and redundant sorting centers. Congress wouldn't permit it. Meanwhile, bipartisan overhaul legislation went nowhere.

Averting a financial collapse will be painful. The National Association of Letter Carriers union estimates 100,000 Postal Service jobs could be eliminated nationwide. The Postal Service says it'll be closer to 35,000 positions, including supervisors, and that many jobs will be cut by attrition. Eliminating Saturday delivery is expected to save the Postal Service $2 billion.

Congress may yet block these cuts. Donahoe's gambit depends on a generous interpretation of the temporary spending bill that keeps the government running until March 27. It's sure to be challenged by lawmakers who want to keep federal jobs in their districts and see the Postal Service as one government agency that touches every constituent. Public opinion polls show 70 percent of those constituents are fine with five-day mail delivery.

At minimum, Donahoe has succeeded in moving the Postal Service's woes higher on the national agenda. Congress must act quickly to preserve and strengthen our national mail service -- and that means letting the postmaster's hard decisions stand.

-- The Syracuse Post-Standard