The governors of the U.S. Postal Service this week backed off a proposal to halt Saturday delivery of first-class mail starting in August. The reversal is not to suggest that the agency, which is flailing financially, has found a way to arrest operating losses that prompted the idea in the first place. It is to say that Congress is proving to be a formidable stumbling block for an agency in a desperate struggle to stay afloat and competitive.
The Postal Service reckons it is losing roughly $25 million a day, the result, in part, of a dramatic increase in Internet use during the past decade. But the nightmare for the agency is 2006 legislation requiring that it pay $5.5 billion a year to fund future retiree health benefits. A huge financial imposition that does not apply to other federal agencies, the payment represents the bulk of the agency’s nearly $16 billion total loss last year.
The Postal Service is controlled by Congress, but receives no congressional appropriations. It is trying to respond to the digital revolution, increased competition and changing demands for its services with plans to restructure daily operations — including dropping first-class mail delivery on Saturday. But as part of the deal in March to fund the federal government, Congress inserted a provision to halt the five-day proposal, which the agency expects would save about $2 billion a year.
Congress has blocked what clearly was a last-ditch step, but it is yet to indicate how the agency may be restructured to keep it viable and to meet the constitutional mandate for postal service.