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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The real issue, of course is the fact that the USPS is required to prefund its pension obligations 75 years ahead, and with a more sensible obligation, it would be in the black.

The goal of that requirement, passed by a Republican Congress in 2006, (To fund retirement for employees not yet born), was to bankrupt the US Post office so that it could abrogate its labor contracts.

The Post Office has the largest unionized workforce of any employer int he US, and the Republicans see taking the union down as a political benefit.

Posted by Matthew_Saroff | Report as abusive

The retirement funding is part of the USPS’s issue, but it doesn’t account for all of the USPS’s financial troubles by any means. The USPS had a $2.4 billion operating loss in 2012 excluding the amounts needed to fund health retirement benefits. That operating loss was a decline from the prior year because the USPS has been cutting its workforce and otherwise reducing costs.

I’d say the biggest move necessary for the USPS – after getting Congressional approval/acquiescence to cut Saturday service – is getting control over real estate decisions. The USPS needs to be able to close and consolidate post offices without getting Congressional approval.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

The real source of the problem is that unlike other government agencies, the Post Office does not receive any congressional appropriations.

Every other governmental department would be having just as much financial difficulty as the USPS if they were forced to operate under similar fiscal conditions.

If Congress is serious about solving the problem, all it has to do is start treating mail delivery as the essential service it is and vote to fund the USPS with an annual appropriation like any other government agency.

I’m sure the Pentagon could spare a couple billion dollars a year…

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

The post master general told all letter carriers last year about the financial struggle that the post office is going through and tjat his 10 year plan as he see it will be to start by cutting out saturday delivery and as HE perdicts the mail volume to go down the post office will need to be cut to 3 days of delivery. So if he gets his way with end SERVICE on saturdays he will cut more delvery days to save money. This is the wrong way!! The post master general wants to just stop delivering mail to small towns and other rural areas because He belives its not cost effective to continue giveing them service. Last spring he tried to shut down rural post offices accross the US but the union fought him and was partialy able to save those small offices. The only thing he did succed was he cut the hours of operation from 8 hours to 6 in some offices and some he cut to 3. There are better ways to save the post office but the post master general does not want to try any other meathod. Please go to to get more info on how to stop the post master from cutting service to ALL americans.

Posted by Postalworker | Report as abusive