Ben Franklin, the very first Postmaster General, would be rolling in his grave, or at least rolling his eyes. No longer is the USPS de facto motto “neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night,” now it may be adding, “nor Saturday’s. Depending on Congress.”
The United States Postal Service is asking Congress to let them cut mail delivery to five days a week, in the hopes of saving approximately $2 billion a year. The USPS posted a $3.8 billion loss for 2009 and is predicting a loss of $7.8 billion for 2010.
The USPS isn’t trying to make a bigger profit. Believe it or not, according to Federal law, the post office is not required to make a profit. It is mandated to be revenue-neutral. This means it only has to break even. But, according to CNNMoney, “The Post Office was $10 billion in debt as of Sept. 30 — not far off from its $15 billion debt limit, which the agency expects to hit in its 2011 fiscal year.” That’s not quite breaking even.
Until 1950, mail was delivered twice a day. Then, like now, the solution was to cut back. If Congress does approve the change it will go into effect mid-2011. The USPS employs 600,000 people. It’s better to cut back a delivery day then lose that many more jobs. Last year they made “$6 billion in cuts, reducing its workforce by about 40,000 employees and chopping overtime hours, transportation costs and other expenses,” reports CNNMoney.
Why does Congress get to decide?
The USPS needs the okay from Congress before it can make changes; after all, it is a government agency. From the United States Code, “The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people.”
However, the postal service does have some very business-like qualities, including the power to sue and be sued, the power to buy, sell and lease property and the power to build, operate, lease and maintain buildings and facilities.
The Post Office does not receive money from taxpayers. It is supposed to be funded by its own revenue. In addition, the Postal Service is exempt from paying federal taxes, it can borrow money at discounted rates, and it can use the government’s rights of eminent domain to condemn and acquire private property. Oh yeah, Congress has an annual budget of $96 million for the “Postal Service Fund.” These funds are used:
- to compensate USPS for postage-free mailing for all legally blind persons
- to compensate for mail-in election ballots sent from US citizens living overseas
- for providing address information to state and local child support enforcement agencies
- for keeping some rural posts offices in operation
Important moments in mail history
The Postal Act of 1792 allowed newspapers to be sent through the mail at low rates, to promote the spread of information. This act also forbid postal employees from opening any letters unless they were undeliverable.
In 1970 the Postal Reorganization Act changed the USPS from a tax-supported agency of the federal government to a semi-independent federal agency, mandated to be revenue-neutral.
In 1982, U.S. postage stamps became “postal products,” rather than just another tax. Each class of mail is also expected to cover its share of the costs; this is why rates for different classes vary.
Here are some other important dates from the USPS website:
1775 – Benjamin Franklin appointed first Postmaster General by the Continental Congress
1847 – U.S. postage stamps issued
1860 – Pony Express began
1863 – Free city delivery began
1896 – Rural free delivery began
1918 – Scheduled airmail service began
1950 – Residential deliveries reduced to one a day
1963 – ZIP Code inaugurated
1974 – Self-adhesive stamps tested
1983 – ZIP+4® Code began
1992 – Self-adhesive stamps introduced nationwide
2006 – Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act signed
2007 – “Forever” stamp issued
That’s right, it took 18 years to get the self-adhesive stamp ready.
If the Post Office is going to survive it may have to start offering services beyond mail. Again, Congress needs to give permission for this. What do you think? Do we need mail six days a week? Last year mail volume was down 12.7 percent. This trend is not going to reverse, if anything, people are going to use email and automatic bill pay more, not less. If the USPS is going to continue to exist then something needs to change.