By Denise Tessier
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” could keep postal workers from their appointed rounds. But in August, those Saturday rounds could stop – and in a nutshell, Congress would be to blame.
But don’t look to get that story from the Albuquerque Journal.
On its Saturday editorial page, the Journal ran a cartoon that actually contributes to pervasive misunderstandings about the U.S. Postal Service. Using the same quote that leads this post, the cartoon shows a “cancelled” Saturday delivery commemorative stamp, its caption reading, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, but huge deficits are another thing.”
“Huge deficits,” while a factor, are not the underlying reason for USPS’ financial problems.
On the same day as the cartoon (Feb. 9), the Journal had a chance to explain that, but it did not. It ran a story that was a mere fraction of the original filed by the Associated Press, grossly misleading because of what the story didn’t say. What the Journal ran was a tiny, two-paragraph brief, placed at the very bottom of the B section’s last page.
Those two graphs said the Postal Service suffered a $1.3 billion loss in the final three months of last year “despite a blizzard of campaign advertising” and holiday deliveries, and that first-class mailings had declined.
If you had read the AP story in most other papers, you would have read those two graphs – reflective of the USPS’s just-released first-quarter report — but also about the real culprit behind USPS woes. That is, that the agency – which receives no taxpayer funds and since 1971 had been self-sustaining – is hobbled by a decree – levied by Congress and signed by George W. Bush in 2006 – requiring USPS to prepay its expected retiree health costs for 75 years.
In other words, since 2006, USPS has had to cover in its budget the health care costs of people who not only don’t work at USPS, but have not even been born yet. How would USPS have fared in its budget without the pre-paid 75-year set-aside, a demand for which has been made of no other agency? Take a look at this chart to see.
If Congress doesn’t remove this unique and crippling requirement, it could conceivably lead to the demise of the USPS. We’ve already seen post office closures and other “streamlining” measures.
And if USPS became crippled enough to close, the money now being set aside for unborn potential workers would just be sitting there at the federal government’s disposal – which sounds suspiciously like the whole point.
Without the set-aside, USPS would have been able to report a profit this first quarter, which the paragraph four of the AP story would have made clear, had the Journal not cut it:
Considering its operations alone, the agency made $100 million delivering the mail — earning $17.7 billion in revenue against $17.6 billion in operating expenses.
Now, $100 million might not seem like much in what, to some, is the ideal profit-focused, privatized world of billion-dollar bonuses, but this isn’t a corporation. It’s the U.S. Postal Service. It’s a service. It says so in its name.
What other group will send your letter or card – across town or across thousands of miles – for less than 50 cents? Perhaps that bargain helps buttress the misunderstanding that the USPS can’t support itself – which the Journal and other media have perpetuated via incomplete or even hostile, grousing-about-the-post-office pieces.
Yet, the USPS does make money on the mail. Its recently released first-quarter report, in which it announced the need for Saturday closures by August if Congress fails to amend the onerous requirement, also revealed USPS news that (to some of us) is positive:
The Postal Service’s shipping business continues to show solid growth. Shipping and Package revenue increased $154 million or 4.7 percent over 2012 first quarter results, fueled by the growth of online shopping and the ongoing success of Postal Service marketing campaigns to promote the value of USPS shipping services.
Revenue from Parcel Return and Parcel Select Services grew 19.2 percent over the same period last year as the Postal Service continues to capitalize on its competitive advantage in providing the “last mile” service. (Note to reader: That’s the “last mile” FedEx or United Parcel Service doesn’t always go.)
First-Class Packages also continued to show strong growth in the first quarter with an increase in revenue of $52 million or 13.2 percent over the first quarter of 2012.
Amazingly, these three points were pushed to the bottom of the U.S. Postal Service’s lengthy report. The agency placed the bad news about the overall loss at the top. Predictably, the press followed USPS’ lead in arranging its stories about the report—bad news at the top, solution in the middle (and vulnerable to deletion to fit the page) and the good news last (and even more likely to be cut).
Perhaps USPS’ thinking was that if Congress would see how much the agency is losing due to its pre-paid retiree health care requirement, Congress would see the need to lift it. But Congress doesn’t seem to be open to productive discussions or lessons these days.
In fact, one New Mexico congressman, Republican Steve Pearce, has already gone on record saying he wouldn’t “bail out” the post office, even while acknowledging it would cause “pain” for people in his far-flung district to lose that service. (In a later interview, Pearce stressed to NMPolitics.net freelancer Jeff Berg that Congress needs to get back to literally using Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution as its guide. Note to readers: Line 7 of Article 1, Section 8, gives Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.”)
The Journal, which endorsed Pearce, has been recalcitrant when it comes to stepping up to defend the postal service and our rural post offices, whose mail carriers are sometimes a literal lifeline to people in the most remote portions of the state.
It still has not editorialized in favor of helping the Postal Service, and in failing to do so, and in running incomplete reportage, it is helping Congress cripple an agency that does work well, that is providing real service to the American people.