The plan is we have no plan: Postal Service claims it has no program to close a large number of post offices nationwide


July 14, 2011

Yesterday the Postal Service released its Final Rule on procedural changes for closing post offices.  It contains many interesting points, but none more eye-opening than the Postal Service’s claim that it has no program to study the closing of a significant number of post offices nationwide.  Yes, you read that right.  The Postal Service is saying that it has not developed “a program to study the discontinuance of large numbers of retail facilities that [has] the potential to effect a nationwide or substantially nationwide change in service.”  In fact, the Postal Service says that “unless and until such a program is developed and presented to the [Postal Regulatory] Commission,” concerns about its impacts “are speculative and premature.” (Rule here; see section N)

At issue here is the fact that if the Postal Service did have a program in place to close thousands of post offices nationwide, it would be required by Title 39 § 3661 to request an Advisory Opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission to determine if the program "will generally affect service on a nationwide or substantially nationwide basis."  And such an Advisory Opinion might derail the program. 

So forget about the hundreds of news articles that have come out in the last few months telling stories about post offices being studied for closure.  Forget the story about 2,000 post office stations and branches slated for closure that the Washington Post and dozens of others newspapers published a few months ago.  Forget all the government studies about “optimizing the retail network” that have provided the rationalization, scope, and direction for the closings we’ve been witnessing.  The USPS has no program to close thousands of post offices, at least not one that has “the potential to effect a nationwide or substantially nationwide change in service.”

Perhaps this refusal to acknowledge the existence of such a closure program explains an interesting moment in yesterday’s open session of the Postal Regulatory Commission. (You can listen to the session here.)

PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway was mentioning her “animated discussions about post office closings” with congressmen concerned about post offices in their districts.  “And I have been working with the Postal Service to try to get the information we need to better respond to the public and to the legislators about the scope of the post office closings that are going on now,” said Goldway.  Then this:

“Yesterday we did receive what we hope will be a comprehensive list, and we will be going over that in the next day or two and hopefully we can make that list available so that the public will better understand what the Postal Service is now engaged in in terms of post office closings and then very shortly what their future concepts are for adjusting the retail network.

Why did Goldway use the rather awkward circumlocution “what the Postal Service is now engaged in in terms of post office closings”?  And why did she hesitate for a moment, looking for the right word, as she proceeded to refer to “what their future [pause] concepts are for adjusting the retail network”?  Concepts?  Why not just call the Postal Service’s plan to close thousands of post offices a “plan” or “program”?  Now we know.  Because the Postal Service has no such program.

In a legal brief filed last week contesting the new procedures for closing post offices, lawyers for the League of Postmasters and NAPUS challenged the Postal Service’s claim that there’s no nationwide program going on.  The brief suggests that “gradually increasing the scale of discontinuances without formally developing a program" looks like a strategy "to avoid classification as a ‘nationwide change in service,’ and this "guts the requirements of § 3661."  (July 5, 2011 complaint, pdf here.)

The brief then continues:

The Postal Service has been gradually closing post offices across the nation for years, purposefully suspending post offices and electing not to replace postmasters as they retire and choosing not to renew building leases in order to close the vacant post offices.  The systematic closings occurring year after year create a conundrum when attempting to pinpoint precisely when the number of closings becomes “nationwide”: Is it 50 post offices per year? A thousand?  Half of the existing post offices?  Must the closings occur in more than ten states?  Thirty states?  Must the doors be closed and the communities abandoned before an advisory opinion is sought? There appears to be a de facto, but nonetheless clear policy of closing post offices wherever possible, but, with recent efforts to more aggressively cut costs, the creeping but widespread closings have ramped up to a heightened level that certainly reaches the level of “nationwide change in service” that obligates the Postal Service to obtain an advisory opinion.

Perhaps in a few days the PRC will release this list of the post offices under study for closure.  Given what we've seen so far, it should contain over a thousand post offices.  According to a July 7, 2011 GAO report (pdf here), there are 1,080 post offices approved for discontinuance study, 97 awaiting approval, and 41 recommended to HQ for discontinuance.  (And add to that the 130-plus post offices closed since November, which Postal Reporter has been keeping track of.)

Once the list is out, how will the Postal Service manage to maintain its claim that there’s no nationwide program to close post offices?  Will it acknowledge the scope of the closures but say they're having no effect on service because there are "alternative" retail facilities available in supermarkets and Office Depots? And how long will it be before the PRC, which bears responsibility for regulating the Postal Service, demands that the Postal Service initiate the process for an Advisory Opinion?

It’s hard to say what’s worse: That the Postal Service, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, could so disingenuously claim that it has no nationwide program to close thousands of post offices.  Or the possibility that the Postal Service is telling the truth and it really doesn’t have a plan, that it’s just closing post offices ad hoc, on a case by case basis, with no consideration for the cumulative impact of thousands of closings on its universal service obligation and on the fate of the postal system as a national institution.  Either way, you have to wonder.

(Image credits: cartoon used with permission from www.cartoonstock.com; Chairman Ruth Goldway, photo provided by PRC)

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