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Congress doing what snow, rain & gloom of ight can’t do

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POSTED September 23, 2013 10:36 p.m.

Waiting for the postman back in the politically incorrect time of my youth was magic.

The clang of the mail slot in the front door opening followed by the distinctive plopping noise that magazines such as Newsweek and Boys’ Life along with department store catalogs intermingled with bills, letters, and unadulterated junk mail made on the hardwood floor was one the great pleasures of Saturday mornings during the school year.

I am no longer 8 years old. I’ve changed. So has the Postal Service.

Since the mid-1960s, it has become one of the most efficient agencies on earth moving massive volumes with extremely little error making deliveries in downtown Manhattan to remote rural routes in Montana.

So why is the Postal Service on pace to lose $6 billion this year after going $16 billion in the hole last year? On one word: Congress.

The Postal Service is neither fish nor fowl. It is in the Twilight Zone of being a quasi-public agency of the worst kind. By Congressional decree it must stand financially independent, yet it can’t make any major changes including rate increases without first asking permission from Congress or their designated overseers. At the same time they must finance their future retiree health benefits 100 percent in advance.

Those advance payments are a big deal to the tune of $5.6 billion annually. It sounded sensible when Congress set the Postal Service “free” of being a federal bureaucracy. If they paid all future obligations in advance, then the Postal Service would stand as a healthy and fiscally vibrant institution.

But what Congress really ended up doing was the equivalent of telling a slave that he’s free but not before putting him in leg irons attached to 100-pound steel balls.

Want to take a guess at how many other federal agencies have to pay 100 percent of the retiree health benefits in advance? Here’s a hint: It’s the same number of Congressional members who will be covered by the Affordable Health Care Act.

Even more astonishing is the fact 100 percent of all benefits for existing retired Postal Service workers are funded. The Postal Service Inspector General points out that compares to 42 percent of all other existing federal retirees and 80 percent of all Fortune 1000 pension funds.

So why doesn’t Congress just cut the Postal Service some slack?

It can’t afford to.

That’s because the $5.6 billion annual payment is included on the federal budget balance sheet. The payments are being used as the proverbial cash cow.

Congress also has a strange way of setting up independent agencies. The Postal Service can’t make marketing and financial decisions on its own. It must get permission essentially from Congress. This has been going on now for more than 40 years. It would be almost the same as kicking your son out at age 18 and telling him he’s on his own but then still controlling every aspect of his life when he’s 58. Essentially you kicked him out but he’s still under your control. That’s where the Postal Service finds itself today.

It can’t even do simple things, such as change rules to allow wine to be shipped by mail without asking Congress’ permission.

The biggest option on the table for the Postal Service to reduce overhead without substantially sending its basic services into a tailspin is to eliminate Saturday delivery. That represents a $2 billion annual savings.

Regardless of where you stand on Saturday service, you probably agree keeping the Postal Service operating is probably more important.

It is also obvious that a penny or so increase on the current first-class rate of 46 cents isn’t going to do the trick. It needs to go to 51 cents as soon as possible, if not more with all other classes going up proportionately.

If you don’t like dropping Saturday delivery and a 10 percent rate hike, there is another solution.

People don’t get mail on Sunday. They can survive without mail on Saturday. The people who are yelling the most about Saturday service possibly coming to an end aren’t the people receiving the mail in the millions of homes across America. It’s the concerns that essentially use the mail service to subsidize their business.

It is how they move their goods and advertising products. And given what it is costing under the current rules as imposed by Congress they are getting massive subsidies.

Of course, the argument is if they pay what it really costs mail volume will go down.

The problem is we can’t afford to let them have it both ways. Either Saturday service goes at the same time Congress backs off a bit on the 100 percent full funding of future retiree benefits or else rates on all classes of mail reflect their true cost.

If it costs me 75 cents to mail a first class letter, so be it. But it will also cost junk mailers proportionally that much more.

We need to stop framing the argument against freeing the Postal Service as one about lonely elderly widows waiting patiently on Saturday morning for the mail to come even if it is nothing but junk mail and political hit pieces and instead focus it on the real benefactors of the mail mess — big business.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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