The Post Office gets tough with Congress

By Felix Salmon
February 6, 2013

The fight between the Post Office and Congress is a very peculiar one. Normally, when the government owns some incredibly profligate business, it’s Congress which tries to impose efficiency gains and fiscal discipline, while the business insists that all of its spending is absolutely necessary and that it has already cut to the bone. In this case, however, the roles are reversed: the Post Office wants to change, and it’s Congress which is stopping it from doing so.

The latest move from the Post Office is a bold one: to abolish Saturday delivery unilaterally, starting August 1. This is a bit like Citicorp announcing that it was merging with Travelers: it’s illegal, but that’s not going to stop them, and the clear expectation is that somehow Congress will make it legal, before or shortly after it happens in reality.

As Jesse Lichtenstein details in his amazing 10,000-word Esquire story about the Post Office, the organization does actually have a detailed plan for becoming fully self-reliant over the next few years. Abolishing Saturday delivery is just one small part of that plan; all of it, by law, requires Congressional buy-in. The plan may or may not be successful, but, as they say, plan beats no plan. The big problem is simple, but huge: Congress isn’t playing along, and instead is just making matters worse, unhelpfully micromanaging everything from postage rates to delivery schedules to health-care contributions.

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. They might not like the latter option, but the former would surely be worse for all concerned.

Today’s announcement says to me that relations between the Post Office and Congress have deteriorated so much that the Post Office has given up on getting Congressional buy-in for its plans. At the same time, the plans are necessary (sufficient is a different question) if the Post Office is going to survive for decades to come. And so the Post Office is just going ahead with what needs to be done, and has decided to treat Congress as an adversary, rather than as a key partner in its evolution.

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.

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