By Denise Tessier
Why, with the federal government shut down, are post offices still open?
Because they’re not funded with taxpayer dollars.
While this week’s federal shutdown left parks closed, Native Americans without funding for crucial services and the president of the United States forced to cancel an important diplomacy trip to Malaysia and the Philippines, the fact that Americans could still receive and send mail should correct once and for all the misconception that the U.S. Postal Service is a contributor to the national deficit – which it is not.
But unless the media – including the Albuquerque Journal – come forward to explain this, the misconception will continue. The shutdown – and the reason USPS’ doors are still open in spite of it – provides a media opportunity that should not be squandered.
The U.S Postal Service is still operating now, but how long before Congress delivers it from possible decimation?
The U.S. Postal Service receives no taxpayer funds and runs on its own dime, funded by postage stamps we buy to mail letters and packages. (Imagine the additional hardship during the shutdown if post offices were shuttered, too. Commerce would be affected; those waiting for checks in the mail couldn’t get delivery.)
Without saying why, a front-page story in Wednesday’s Albuquerque Journal about the federal shutdown’s effect on New Mexico contained only this passing reference to the U.S. Postal Service:
While post offices, border checkpoints and federal law enforcement agencies continued to work, the impact (of the shutdown) was felt immediately Tuesday in other areas.
The ideologues responsible for this federal shutdown – and make no mistake about it, the shutdown is not a disagreement between parties, but the fault of one wing of one party – did not shut down the post offices. At least not this week.
But Congress has shown by its actions it would like the U.S. Postal Service to go away – after USPS amasses enough funding worth raiding once it departs.
What else could explain why Congress hobbled the agency with its decree – signed by George W. Bush in 2006 – requiring USPS to prepay its expected retiree health costs for 75 years?
As I’ve written before on ABQJournalWatch, since 1971 the U.S. Postal Service had been self-sustaining. But 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. Take a look at this chart (scroll down) to see how USPS would have fared in its budget without the pre-paid 75-year set-aside.
Even though USPS gets no taxpayer dollars, it comes under the purview of Congress under an arrangement unique to the agency. Congress has made no such requirement of any other agencies and for USPS, the 75-year set aside has been crippling. It is the reason they’ve closed post offices and talked of eliminating Saturday delivery, and now are asking for another postage increase.
Just last week (Sept. 26), the Journal ran an Associated Press story about the USPS’ “precarious financial condition”. The story said the postal Board of Governors would like to raise the price of a first-class stamp by 3 cents as one of its options in dealing with USPS losses – without mentioning the set-aside requirement. According to the story, federal law dictates that the post office cannot raise its prices more than the rate of inflation unless it gets approval from the commission.
Historically, the Journal editorial board only considers for editorial comment topics that have been covered in the Journal. Even though it ran the AP story, the Journal so far has remained silent – as it was when it ran the AP story (July 25) that door-to-door mail delivery could become a thing of the past and another AP story (Aug. 10) about USPS’ consolidation of processing facilities, reduction of work hours for career employees and reduced post office hours to cut costs to meet the congressional mandate.
Even a Sunday Journal comic strip weighed in on the importance of USPS when the character Luann was shown having technical trouble contacting classmates for a senior party, asking at the end, “Hey – Is there still a Postal Service?”
(Not only is there still a Postal Service, carriers were delivering even after the historic Colorado floods. Check out the mail carrier in picture 14 in this group of photos from the flooding.)
But here’s the real head scratcher when it comes to the Journal: On Aug. 28, the paper ran a column by National Newspaper Association President Merle Baranczyk, who wrote that if postage goes up, New Mexico will be hit hard. In “Stamp cost rise would hurt N.M.,” he plainly spelled out that Congress holds the key to helping USPS by getting rid of the mandate, saying:
. . . specifically, Congress needs to change the laws that govern it, particularly an unfair $5 billion a year prefunding requirement for its retirees’ health care. But it is Congress moving at the snail’s pace, not the mail.
Congress needs to act, he wrote, although his column was more a plea for the Board of Governors to refrain from raising postage rates. From the column:
When barely two-thirds of the state has access to the Internet and many who do simply cannot afford to use it, the mail is the lifeline. A big postage increase would also mean the small businesses, which make up 90 percent of the employer firms in the U.S. and create most of the new jobs, will be hit hard.
The rural poor will be hit hard.
Businesses and individuals who can afford to abandon the mail will do it faster if the cost spikes but that is not good either if we hope to preserve a national postal system. Some mail users will go away forever. In 2008, for example, a low double-digit rate increase for catalogs caused volumes to fall 23 percent.
Those who cannot leave the system will have to do without some other essential.
Either way, the result is not good for New Mexico and certainly not good for the Postal Service, which needs to hang onto the mail it now has.
Astonishingly, the column then informed the reader that Albuquerque attorney Mickey Barnett is the head of the Board of Governors, the body that will be making the decision on whether to raise postal rates. Barnett was quoted in the AP stories about the postage increase proposal, but the Journal did not insert a line mentioning that he is from New Mexico. Nor has the Journal done a local profile of Barnett’s USPS role.
Baranczyk made a good case for preservation of the USPS – from a New Mexico standpoint — and the Journal has yet to get on board with an editorial championing the agency and calling for an end to the congressional requirement.
Baranczyk’s column is good, but not enough. The Journal needs to stand up for the U.S. Postal Service in an editorial.
By the way, it’s interesting that no local story resulted from Baranczyk’s column, yet that’s exactly what happened when independent film consultant Eric Witt submitted a letter to the Journal this week. In the letter, which the Journal turned into a column that appeared on Thursday’s (Oct. 3) Op-Ed page, Witt wrote that while still in the governor’s office, he tried to convince the State Investment Council to grant a production loan to Sony for the television series “Breaking Bad.”
Submitted on Wednesday, Oct. 2, the Journal quickly put a reporter on it and placed the story (by Dan Boyd) at the top of Thursday’s front page. Boyd had contacted a State Investment Council spokesman, who confirmed Witt’s claim, and Boyd turned the letter into a complete story about loans in general and, once again, the popularity of “Breaking Bad.”
It seemed a little strange, reading a “column” on Op-Ed by Witt minutes after reading that it had been a letter, etc. on page 1, but at the least the Journal expanded on Witt’s submittal and checked Witt’s facts. As I’ve noted in previous posts, that’s something the Journal does rarely, but should do a lot more.