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Saving the mail

Monday, March 19, 2012 - Updated: 12:09 AM

By KRISTINA COSTA

The Baltimore Sun

The only way to reach Supai, Ariz. (population 208), is to hike or helicopter eight miles to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The U.S. Postal Service delivers mail and supplies there three days a week -- by mule.

Although the country's steepest canyon may be no match for the American mail carrier, our postal system does face a gaping threat from a huge hole of another kind: After several years of modest surpluses, the postal service lost $25.4 billion between 2007 and 2011, plunging $13 billion into debt.

That crisis now threatens postal facilities across the country. For three years, business owners and residents in Easton, Md., have been fighting plans to close the U.S. postal service sorting facility there. If it closes, mail would be trucked 160 miles to a facility near Wilmington, Del., taking with it an estimated $19 million from the area's economy.

The Easton plant is one of 252 mail processing centers being considered for closure as a cost-cutting measure. More than 3,800 post offices are also on the chopping block.

Digging out of the financial chasm will require congressional action, and lawmakers are considering several reform plans. As they do, members of Congress should make every effort to preserve this critical and beloved American institution. They can start by adhering to these three core principles:

Minimize harm. Reform efforts should attempt to protect economically and socially vulnerable communities like those on the Eastern Shore, as well as to the 574,000 Americans who count on the postal service for good, middle-class jobs.

Address the real problems. Declining mail volume is a problem, but Congress should also reform or repeal burdensome legislative mandates, including a 2006 requirement that the postal service pre-fund 75 years' worth of retiree health benefits over just 10 years. This law placed an unprecedented financial burden on the postal service during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Refrain from additional burdensome mandates. Congress should give the postal service more flexibility, not less, by rescinding legal restrictions on the kinds of activities it can conduct. This will allow the postal service to create a business model for the 21st century -- while retaining delivery services essential for the public good.

Several bills have been introduced in both chambers of Congress to address the postal service's financial crisis. Of these, the 21st Century Postal Service Act, sponsored by Connecticut independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is the only postal reform bill to have cleared its committee.

A coalition of 27 senators recently signed a letter advocating for amendments to Lieberman's bill, including protecting rural post offices and maintaining fast standards for first-class mail. The letter rightly notes that local post offices are "the heart and soul" of rural communities that lack broadband Internet access.

As the debate continues, Congress should remain vigilant and ensure that any postal reform initiative is careful, deliberate and adheres to the core principles outlined above. This is an issue with high stakes for Maryland and the nation.

For example, proposed closings could have serious ramifications for the November election. Voting officials in California and Arizona are concerned about delays in mail speed resulting from processing facility closures, while the registrar in the swing state of Ohio is worried about security if mail-in ballots get sent across state lines to be sorted. And in Oregon, the first state to require its residents to vote by mail, the closure of rural post offices will make it more difficult for voters to submit their ballots.

Cutting costs and services is not the only way forward. Congress should also give the postal service the flexibility it needs to adjust to the Internet Age. Allowing post offices to sell hunting and fishing licenses, notarize and photocopy documents, and branch out into other retail services -- all activities currently prohibited by law -- could go a long way toward making rural post offices, in particular, more financially viable.

At a time of mounting cynicism about the federal government, the postal service remains extremely popular. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 83 percent of Americans gave the postal service a "favorable" rating. In the same survey, favorability ratings for the two major political parties, Congress, and the government in general all reached record lows.

It's time for Congress to give the postal service the flexibility it needs to meet the economic demands of the 21st century -- without writing off small-town America.

KRISTINA COSTA is a research assistant in economic policy at the Center for American Progress.

     

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