A cherished American institution that began in 1775, the United States Postal Service, was crippled by Republican legislation 231 years later, but the future of the USPS may be brighter if the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012 is passed.
History of United State Postal Service
One of America's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, was appointed the first Postmaster General by the Continental Congress in 1775. Since that time, as the Postal Service notes, it "has grown and changed with America, boldly embracing new technologies to better serve a growing population."
The storiedhistory of the USPS, which began as the U.S. Post Office Department, includes the issuance of the first U.S. postage stamps in 1847, the start of the Pony Express in 1860, rural free delivery began in 1896, ZIP codes were launched in 1963, and more recently, in 2006, the draconian Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) was signed into law by Pres. George W. Bush.
With the advent of e-mail, free accounts, online bill paying and broad usage along with the onset of America's Great Recession in December 2007, Americans began sending more emails and fewer letters and economic conditions caused many to refrain from any unnecessary expenditures including buying postage stamps.
User Coolcaesar on en.wikipedia
A small United States Postal Service truck seen in Carson City, Nevada. The USPS often uses these smaller vehicles in suburban areas.
Those factors had less of a negative effect on the USPS than did the crippling PAEA. The USPS was mandated by that legislation, passed by Republicans during a lame duck session of Congress in the winter of 2006 and signed into law by Bush, to do something unprecedented and unconscionable - to prefund its future retirees’ health benefits at a cost of approximately $5.6 billion per year for 10 years.
According to the Congressional Research Service [PDF], prior to the enactment of PAEA, the USPS made "modest profits from FY2004 through FY2006." However, "the USPS lost $25.4 billion between FY2007 and FY2011." And, as National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando stated, “Since $3.1 billion of the reported $3.2 billion loss in the most recent fiscal quarter stems from pre-funding future retiree health benefits—which no other entity in America is compelled to do—the USPS and congressional response ought to address the actual problem."
The Atlantic Wire quoted the USPS as saying, "The losses are due primarily to legislative mandates such as the unique mandated pre-funding of retiree health benefits, and prohibiting management from making the needed operational and human resource changes required to address these issues under current laws and contracts."
To remedy the extraordinary budget shortfalls created primarily by the PAEA, the USPS has drastically reduced the size of its workforce and closed, or scheduled the closing of, numerous mail processing facilities and U.S. Post Offices. An example of the more than 3,600 closures announced in July of last year is the Post Office in Johnson, Ark., which closed on October 22, 2011.
The U.S. Post Office in Johnson, Ark. on the evening before it closed. 10/21/2011
However, in mid-December 2011 at the urging of U.S. Senators, the USPS agreed to delay the closing of "post offices or mail processing facilities until May 15, 2012," in the hope of Congress passing comprehensive legislation that would repair the damage of PAEA and offer a better business model, DigitalJournal.com reported.
The push-back against closing facilities and cutting good-paying jobs with decent benefits came from citizens and legislators alike. The Postal Service is, in fact, one of the largest employers of minorities and the largest employer of military veterans. As CNNMoney reported in 2011, "the Postal Service is the single largest employer of veterans, which make up 130,000, or 22% of its ranks, according to a 2010 report on postal operations. Of those veterans, 49,000 -- nearly a third -- are disabled." However, because the USPS is considering instituting veterans preference, veterans are less likely to be impacted by job cuts than minorities who are not veterans. Still, minorities comprise 21% of the Postal Service's workforce and will likely be significantly and negatively impacted by job reductions.
Now that the moratorium has ended, mass closures of approximately 3,300 post offices are expected.
Current Status of USPS
On May 17, the Plattsburgh mail sorting facility in Vermont received word from the USPS that it will be closed; however, the White River Junction, Vt. facility was spared and will remain open, reports WPZT. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) responded to the good news about White River Junction. Sen. Sanders told WPZT, “I think the Postal Service got the message. I think the legislation that we passed in the Senate a few weeks ago showed the Postmaster General that the draconian cuts that he was talking about, in terms of processing plants and rural post offices, was just not acceptable.”
A call to Senator Sanders' office revealed that the legislation he discussed above is S. 1789, the "21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012." The bill began its journey through the U.S. Senate in November 2011 and was eventually passed by a 62-37 vote on April 25, 2012. The bill was sent to the House on April 26, where it was "Held at the desk," according to the S. 1789 bill summary.
The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) is not pleased with all of the provisions of S. 1789. For example, it gives the postmaster general authority to stop Saturday mail delivery, which could cost 80,000 jobs. It reduces the "level of required pre-funding," states NALC, but "the cost of the mandate is still too heavy to allow the USPS to regain a sound financial footing."
However, a direct attack on postal employee unions by tea party-backed Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was defeated. Amendment 2039 "To prohibit employees of the United States Postal Service from engaging in collective bargaining" was defeated by a 23-76 vote.
Amendment 2031 "To prohibit the closing of a rural post office unless certain conditions are met and to establish a moratorium on the closing of rural post offices" by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was agreed to in a voice vote. However, according to the NALC, the postmaster general is still likely to reduce operating hours "in thousands of rural post offices."
After the Senate vote on S. 1789, Sen. Sanders, who voted for the bill and is a strong advocate for common sense postal reform, was a guest on The Ed Show to speak about postal reform. As seen in the video above, the House bill on postal reform, sponsored by Darrell Issa (R-CA), was discussed.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, the "Postal Reform Act of 2011" has been under consideration since June 2011. According to the bill summary, the last action on H.R. 2309 was its being "Placed on the Union Calendar" on March 29, 2012.
According to the NALC, "Once that body [House] acts, the process will not be over. A conference committee would have to reconcile the competing bills, and President Obama would be able to weigh in on the legislation—since a final bill that passed both houses would not become law unless he signed it."
In the meantime, some post offices, like the one in Johnson, Ark. have already closed and mail sorting facilities like the one in Plattsburgh, Vt. will be closed. As the USPS stated on May 17, it "plans to move ahead with a modified plan to consolidate its network of 461 mail processing locations in phases. The first phase of activities will result in up to 140 consolidations through February of 2013. Unless the circumstances of the Postal Service change in the interim, a second and final phase of 89 consolidations is currently scheduled to begin in February of 2014."
The U.S. Post Office in Johnson, Ark. on the evening before it closed. 10/21/2011
The consolidation will likely result in a USPS workforce reduction of 13,000 people on top of the reduction of "244,000 career employees since 2000."
Future of USPS
The subtitle of S. 1789 is "A bill to improve, sustain, and transform the United States Postal Service." All of these positive goals are in sharp contrast with the PAEA, which was a conservative measure designed to cause extreme problems where few existed. Keep in mind that the USPS was profitable before PAEA was enacted.
Moreover, workers who belong to unions and the unions themselves have been, and continue to be, under assault by the Republican party. The majority of Americans oppose this destructive political strategy as indicated by a Bloomberg National Poll, which found that "Americans reject Republican efforts to curb bargaining rights of unions whose power they say is dwarfed by corporations."
It is up to legislators to determine the circumstances of the Postal Service, but those legislators have to decide if they want a positive or negative future for this cherished institution. Are they so ideologically warped against public sector unions that they are ready to sacrifice good paying jobs? Is it part of the plan to keep unemployment rates high so as to use that against Pres. Obama in the upcoming election? Are some Republican legislators grinning like Cheshire cats, behind closed doors of course, about the USPS problems they created and are happy to let them endure?
Others may think this is an opportunity to privatize postal delivery in order, as the theory goes, to save money? What those legislators may not know is that FedEx and UPS contract with USPS to deliver their packages to rural areas. And, as it often happens in reality, using private sector companies costs more. For example, according to the UPI, "The United States Postal Service has wasted $94 million on its contract with FedEx" because "mail that should have been shipped by cheaper surface transportation or commercial airlines was routed onto expensive FedEx jets." And, interestingly, in November 2010, USPS rates for Express and Priority Mail were "cheaper than similar services provided by FedEx or United Parcel Service."
A more democratic bill that keeps the interests of the people in general in mind will be one that fully eliminates the PAEA mandated pre-funding of retiree health benefits, approaches job cuts with a scalpel rather than a bulldozer, and makes common sense adjustments to laws that prohibit management from making needed operational and human resource changes. And, residents and businesses in rural areas will be taken into consideration as decisions are made and a reconciled bill is passed to produce a 21st century business model for the USPS.
Despite calling the House Republican bill, H.R. 2309, "truly regressive," the NALC is more optimistic than me. NALC notes that its "top priorities—preserving six-day delivery and fixing the pension and health care funding provisions of the law—have a lot of bi-partisan support in the House." Given that H.R. 2309 has been in consideration in the House for almost a year now, and Rep. Issa supposedly saying that the Senate bill is dead on arrival in the House as heard in the video above, I foresee the usual delay and "no" tactics being taken by Republicans in both chambers.
The future of the USPS will be brighter if a more democratic bill emerges from the U.S. Congress, one that improves, sustains, and positively transforms the United States Postal Service. However, in order for that to occur, bipartisanship and common sense must prevail over extreme political positions. Sadly, those ideals are not valued by many members of the current version of the Republican party. As Mann and Ornstein, scholars who've studied Washington politics for 40 years, wrote in April:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
U.S. Post Office in Johnson, Ark. on the evening before it closed. 10/21/2011
The challenges for the USPS were, in large part, put in place by Republicans through the PAEA in 2006. It is unlikely that the "ideologically extreme" in the contemporary Republican party will chose to fix the problems created by their predecessors. Therefore, it is up to the American people to decide if they want a cherished institution, the United States Postal Service, not only to continue serving communities but also to be a better, more efficient employer to hundreds of thousands of citizens.
To deal constructively with America's challenges, including the issues faced by the USPS, will require Americans to vote in November with these things in mind: More good-paying jobs with decent benefits or fewer? Less expensive services delivered by public sector employees or more expensive services delivered by the private sector? To end a cherished institution or keep it? Voters' decisions concerning who they will elect as their U.S. Senators and Representatives in November will determine the future of the U.S. Postal Service.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com