Why Congress should not get out of the way of the Postal Service

November 23, 2014


News that Ron Johnson, the Tea Party favorite from Wisconsin, will be taking over as chair of the Senate committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs has caused an overwhelming sense of panic among progressives and postal workers.  Johnson will control oversight of the Postal Service in the Senate.

There may be good reason to think this has the makings of disaster.  Johnson is on the record stating that it would be a good idea if the Postal Service went into bankruptcy and got privatized.  His training is in accounting, but he has refused, with an aggressive ignorance, to acknowledge the basic tenets of accounting.  When witnesses come before his committee, he bullies them and waves his arm abrasively.  His dislike of unions is so intense he’s willing to set aside his worship of the business principles of a contract to concoct a bankruptcy scheme to abrogate postal labor agreements. 

But is the coming of Ron Johnson any reason to panic?

Tom Coburn, the current ranking member on the committee, has said virtually all of the same things as Johnson (in his quiet, deadly way).   Several of the other Republicans on the committee — Rand Paul, Mike Enzi, and Kelly Ayotte — have also said many of the same things Johnson has.  All of them have shown a disdain for the Postal Service as an institution.  All of them have questioned the Postal Service role as a national infrastructure.

Never mind too that Tom Carper, the Democrat from Delaware and current chair of the committee, has endorsed virtually every cut, every closure, every act of outsourcing that PMG Donahoe has engaged in or even imagined.  On postal matters, his views are not that far from Johnson’s. 


It could be the end

While Ron Johnson will probably just carry on like Carper, Coburn, and the other Republicans on the committee overseeing the Postal Service, the specter of Senator Johnson as chair is haunting progressives. 

The sky is falling at Think Progress, where Kira Lerner tells us that with Johnson “it could be the end of the Postal Service as we know it.”  Lerner therefore hopes that Congress passes legislation — any legislation at all, bad as it might be — before Johnson can pass something worse.

But how likely is that the any legislation to come out of a lame duck session will be any good?  Anything likely to come out of the Senate would carve in stone the current agenda of cuts to the workforce, reductions in service, and secret NSA agreements.  Plus, any bill passed by the Senate would have to go to conference with whatever Darrell Issa comes up with in the House.  The result will be further degradation of the postal network.  There’s little chance it will make those who care about postal services in this country very happy. 

Over at Daily Kos, Laura Clawson seems just as frightened of Johnson as Lerner is.  Faced with Johnson’s statement that the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process, Clawson says, “Another solution is for Congress to get out of the way of the Postal Service making money providing needed services like banking for tens of millions of people who don't have access to financial institutions.”

Postal banking might be useful for the millions of unbanked citizens, but it’s worth giving this notion of “getting Congress out of the way” a bit more thought.  The idea seems to be almost everyone’s answer for what ails the Postal Service.  Blaming Congress is apparently something that folks everywhere on the political spectrum can agree on. 

That should come as no surprise, considering that Congress has become less popular than a shady used car salesman.  But would all be right with the Postal Service if Congress just got out of the way?

The answer to that depends a lot on what you want the Postal Service to do with its newfound freedom.


Did the Postal Service forget it owns the historic Lindsborg post office?

November 15, 2014

The Postal Service has closed the post office in Lindsborg, Kansas, because of concerns about the air quality.  Apparently some black mold was discovered in the basement.  That’s not too surprising considering that it’s an old building that dates back to 1936.

The news reports don’t mention the phrase, but presumably the office was closed for an “emergency suspension.”  Under the legal provisions for such suspensions, the Postal Service can close an office on very short notice, without consulting the community. 

And that’s just what happened in Lindsborg.  Customers arrived at the post office one day last week and found the place closed.  There was just a cryptic message posted on the door explaining that due to "safety concerns" postal operations had been transferred to Salina, over 20 miles away.  At least one customer complained about the lack of advance notice and asked why the Postal Service "didn't know about this way before."

There are three other post offices less than ten miles from Lindsborg where customers can do their postal business.  The more immediate concern was the hundred or so box holders in Lindsborg.  In order to provide boxes to these customers, the Postal Service is going to install a cluster box unit in front of the post office.

There’s nothing very unusual about the Postal Service closing a post office over mold issues.  It’s happened several times in the past, and usually the office reopens after the landlord takes care of the problem.

And that’s pretty much what one would expect in this case.  The notice taped the door of the Lindsborg post office says just that:

“The Postal Service is having the air inside the Lindsborg Post Office tested.  If the air quality is determined to be unsafe, the landlord of the Lindsborg Post Office will be notified so remediation can be made.  Once it is safe, the Postal Service plans to reopen the Post Office.”

What’s curious about this notice is that the landlord is the Postal Service itself. 

According to the most recent Owned Facilities Report, which was just updated a couple of months ago, the Postal Service owns the post office at 125 E. Lincoln Street in Lindsborg, Kansas.  In fact, it has owned the building since it was constructed back in 1936. 

It’s not as if this is just any post office.  It's a historic New Deal post office, it contains a 1938 mural entitled "Smoky River" by Birger Sandzen, and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.  (The 1989 nomination form is here, with the photos here.)

Now, it’s possible that the notice taped to the door of the post office was just boilerplate, and someone in postal management mistakenly used some text that was intended for when a leased property is suspended.  But that wouldn’t explain why the Postal Service did not inform the news media that it would be taking care of the mold problem itself as soon as possible.

The fact that the Postal Service is going to spend money installing a cluster box unit in front of the post office suggests that the closure will be more than temporary.  It's entirely possible that the Lindsborg Post Office will never reopen and that the Postal Service will eventually put the building on the market.  Perhaps that's the plan behind the mold issue.

In the meantime, the Postal Service will be notifying the Postal Service that the mold problem must be corrected before the Postal Service can reopen the Lindsborg Post Office.

(Photo credits: Lindsborg, KS post office and Birger Sandzen’s “Smoky River" mural, by Jimmy Emerson)

WaPo op-ed hacked by dysfunctional status quo

November 12, 2014

It's business as usual at the Washington Post.  Just as it has done many times over the past few years, the Post's editorial staff is calling for more cuts to postal services and more downsizing of the infrastructure, all in the name of "reform."

Today's Post has an editorial entitled "Delivering a solvent Postal Service, the bipartisan way."  The Post endorses the Carper-Coburn bill and its mandate to close facilities and cut services, and then blames “interest-group politics” for opposing these much-needed reforms.  According to the Post, it's postal unions, rural states, and large-scale commercial mailers who are “furiously” trying to protect “the dysfunctional status quo.” 

Not surprisingly, the Post expresses support for the Postal Service’s plan to close 82 more mail processing plants over the coming months.  To make its case, the Post describes these plants as “inefficient mail-processing facilities.”  But the Post provides no evidence for why these plants are “inefficient.”   

There’s actually a considerable amount of evidence showing that it would be more efficient for the Postal Service to maintain these plants rather than close them.

When the Postal Regulatory Commission did an Advisory Opinion in 2012 analyzing the Postal Service’s Network Rationalization plan to close about 260 plants, the Commission concluded that it would be more efficient if only some of the plants were closed.  After an exhaustive analysis conducted by the PRC staff and outside experts, the Commission found that closing some plants would be beneficial.  Closing all of the plants on the list, however, would be counter-productive because it would necessitate ending overnight delivery for almost all First-Class mail, which in turn could cause a considerable amount of damage in terms of lost revenue.

How deep the losses would be was hard to say, however, because the market research done on the question was so problematic.  The Postal Service commissioned a market research survey that showed that mail volumes would decline precipitously if the mail were slowed down as proposed.  The losses would be so significant, in fact, that the closures could end up losing money in the end.  The Postal Service buried the survey and commissioned a second survey, which produced more palatable results. 

In reviewing the two surveys, the PRC could not come up with a reasonable estimate for how much the plan would save.  If everything went perfectly, the consolidations could save over $2 billion a year, as the Postal Service was claiming, but the plan could also end up breaking even or even losing a half billion dollars a year.  In the worst-case scenario, it might even end up losing almost $1.5 billion a year.  (For more on the numbers, see this previous post.)

In the end, the PRC recommended that the Postal Service proceed with phase one of the closures (which the Postal Service had already begun to do before the Advisory Opinion was issued), but hold off on phase two.  The Postal Service is ignoring the advice, and it's going to begin closing the plants early next year.  Postal workers across the country will be protesting the closures on Thursday of this week.

On Privatization

Good Reading on Postal Privatization

Also: Sarah Ryan's "Understanding Postal Privatization: Corporations, Unions, and the "Public Interest"

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