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Can Congress Figure Out How To Rescue The Post Office?

U.S. Postal Service letter carrier Jamesa Euler delivers mail in the rain in Atlanta in February.
David Goldman
U.S. Postal Service letter carrier Jamesa Euler delivers mail in the rain in Atlanta in February.

The U.S. Postal Service lost some $16 billion last year and continues to bleed red ink. Congress has been unable to agree on a rescue plan.

The latest proposal would allow the post office to end Saturday delivery in a year and enable it to ship wine and beer.

The Postal Service's woes are familiar: People don't really send letters anymore, so first-class mail is down, and Congress makes the post office prepay future retiree benefits to the tune of $5.5 billion a year.

Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware says the Postal Service is on the verge of financial collapse.

"The Postal Service can't continue to bleed money, to run up its tab at the Treasury," says Carper, who heads the Senate panel with oversight of the Postal Service. "The Postal Service owes more than $15 billion to the Treasury — and the ticker's still running."

Plus, he says, there are "7 or 8 million jobs in the country that depend on a strong, viable Postal Service. And this is one that can be fixed."

Carper's fix? The Postal Reform Act, co-sponsored with the panel's top Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. The measure would allow the post office to eliminate Saturday service in a year, and to reduce the number of mail-processing centers in two years. It would also allow the post office to ship alcoholic beverages, opening up a new revenue stream, and to reduce somewhat the pension prepayments.

Carper says the Postal Service suffers from too much capacity and too many workers, just like the auto industry used to.

"What they've done is they have right-sized their enterprise," he says of the carmakers. He says the Postal Service needs to do the same.

"They don't have the kind of market share that they used to have," he says. "First-class mail volume has continued to drop. That's where they've made their money over the years."

Coincidentally, the post office unveiled some new stamps Thursday, commemorating American workers. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe used the occasion to praise postal workers.

"Our employees do a very good job, and work very hard every day to keep mail moving, keep packages moving, across the country," Donahoe said.

But there are far fewer postal employees than there once were, and under Carper's proposal, there would be fewer still. So the American Postal Workers Union has taken to the airwaves, running an ad urging Congress not to cut employees, but to change the way the Postal Service funds its pension obligations.

The ad says the problem is "a burden no other agency or company bears — a 2006 law that drains $5 billion a year from post office revenue while the Postal Service is forced to overpay billions more into federal accounts."

Greg Bell, vice president of the American Postal Workers Union, says the prefunding of retiree health benefits doesn't make sense.

Bell says the union supports a bill sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, that would end the post office's prefunding requirement but otherwise keep the Postal Service relatively unchanged.

The Senate approved a Postal Service overhaul last year, but the House never acted. Meanwhile, the losses continue to mount.

Carper is optimistic the House will approve its own bill soon, setting the stage for the two chambers to find some middle ground.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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