People wondering why the U.S. Postal Service is in financial trouble today need look no further than Montana’s congressional delegation. Sen. Max Baucus, former Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg, along with most of their peers in Congress, voted in favor of H.R. 6407, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which created the onerous mandate to pre-fund healthcare benefits for future postal retirees for 75 years over a 10-year period, costing the Postal Service $5.5 billion annually. This requirement is unheard of in private industry or any other government agency, local, state or federal. It was, in fact, a poison pill designed to destroy the Postal Service as we know it.
We are now seeing the fallout from this legislation. The Postal Service’s budget, which would have been revenue-neutral without this requirement even in today’s down market, is nearly $15 billion in the red after five years. Given the legal mandate to continue this disastrous course, top management says it is struggling to find ways of reducing costs without significantly affecting service. It has already closed dozens of processing centers and curtailed services it could easily sacrifice. Now comes the painful part, which is the closure of 252 more processing centers, including several in Montana, two of which are in Missoula and Kalispell. When these centers are closed, western Montana’s mail will be shipped to Spokane for route sorting.
The Postal Service predicts its best-case scenario will save $1.2 million by closing our processing center. Missoula will pay dearly for this. Twenty-eight employees will be laid off. We’ll lose overnight first-class service in Montana; it will be downgraded to two to three days or more, depending on the weather. We’ll lose vital access to markets and services such as newspaper and medication delivery, absentee voting and direct mailing, among countless others. And we’ll lose one of the bits of fabric that holds a community together.
I attended last week’s information and feedback session for the regional postal managers to make their case for elimination of Missoula’s processing center and for Missoulians to respond with their concerns. The managers presented a bean-counter PowerPoint detailing the financial and logistical reasoning for the proposed closure. Absent from this analysis was the increased carbon footprint generated by transporting our mail to Spokane and back or the direct economic impacts of the change in service to western Montanans. Also missing were projected losses of the post office customer base and their impact on revenue.
Most outrageously, representatives from Baucus’s and Rehberg’s offices testified on behalf of Montana postal customers. However, they failed to acknowledge their part in H.R. 6407 and no one else held them to account. Stating that the postal service’s hands were tied by law, John DiPeri, the regional manager, seemed to have no more imagination than his bosses. Rather than suggest the repeal of this bill, which largely is the source of today’s problem, he simply acknowledged the constraints caused by this legislation and recommended that we write higher-ups and our representatives in Congress to express our concerns about the specific cuts proposed.
The larger issue is that our public institutions are under an insidious attack by ideologues who want to set the government up for failure. As funding for our important institutions is withdrawn, long-esteemed programs will fail one after another, providing ever more proof that government does not work. Make no mistake, our national parks and other public treasures will soon be up for sale to the lowest bidder.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, however, has recently proposed the Postal Service Protection Act, which, if enacted, will restore solvency to the Postal Service by repealing the pre-funding requirement and enabling the Postal Service to expand the services it offers to create new sources of revenue. Anyone who cares about the services the post office provides, please write to Sens. Baucus and Tester and Rep. Rehberg to urge them to embrace Sen. Sanders’ plan to correct the mistake of 2006.
Without imagination and decisive action, the finest and most efficient postal service in the world will decline to the point it cannot provide service at any price.