How the postal reform bill may help the Postal Service slow down the mail

SteveBlog, Featured, Slideshow

Steve Hutkins

In August 1970, Title 39, aka the Postal Reorganization Act, created the Postal Service. The first section, 39 U.S. Code § 101, is entitled “Postal Policy.” It’s just over 400 words long, but it is probably the most frequently quoted passage in the history of postal legislation. It’s often cited in litigation, academic articles, and the dockets of the Postal Regulatory Commission.

In some respects, Section 101 is like the Preamble to the Constitution. It sets forth the basic principles on which the Postal Service is established:

(a) 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. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people.

Section 101 also protects small rural post offices by including this oft-cited passage:

(b) The Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining. No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services be insured to residents of both urban and rural communities.

In 2008 Congress amended Section 101 on “Postal Policy” to remove part of a sentence in subpart (f) that required the Postal Service to “make a fair and equitable distribution of mail business to carriers providing similar modes of transportation services to the Postal Service.” The passage was deleted under Pub. L. 110–405, the Air Carriage of International Mail Act, which modified how the Postal Service made air transportation contracts, apparently rendering the line unnecessary.

Aside from this minor change, there have been no other revisions of section 101. It reads today as it did in 1970.

Yet for some reason, buried deep in the postal reform bill gaining traction in Congress right now — H.R. 3076, “Postal Service Reform Act of 2021” — is a section that would amend 39 USC 101. (The text of the Senate version of postal reform, S.1720, isn’t available yet, but NALC says it includes a similar passage.)

The proposed modifications in the wording of the text may seem small, but they have huge implications. Here’s how part (f) reads now: 

(f) In selecting modes of transportation, the Postal Service shall give highest consideration to the prompt and economical delivery of all mail. Modern methods of transporting mail by containerization and programs designed to achieve overnight transportation to the destination of important letter mail to all parts of the Nation shall be a primary goal of postal operations.

Here’s the section in the House bill that amends 39 USC 101:

Section 101(f) of title 39, United States Code, is amended—

(1) by striking “prompt and economical” and inserting “prompt, economical, consistent, and reliable”;
(2) by inserting after “all mail” the following: “in a manner that increases operational efficiency and reduces complexity”;
(3) by inserting “cost-effective” after “to achieve”; and
(4) by inserting “also” after “Nation shall”.

The revised version of Section 101 would thus read as follows, with the new phrases in italics:

In selecting modes of transportation, the Postal Service shall give highest consideration to the prompt, economical, consistent, and reliable delivery of all mail in a manner that increases operational efficiency and reduces complexity. Modern methods of transporting mail by containerization and programs designed to achieve cost-effective overnight transportation to the destination of important letter mail to all parts of the Nation shall also be a primary goal of postal operations.

Why does the bill include these changes, and who asked for them to be included?

My guess is the Postal Service, or someone acting on its behalf, asked for the changes, and the reason is simply this: The additional phrases will make it easier for the Postal Service to justify shifting from air transportation to surface transportation for First Class mail — a central feature of its plan to reduce service standards and slow down the mail.

One of the main arguments the Postal Service has put forth for reducing service standards — shifting a lot of mail with a 2-day standard to 3-day, and 3-day mail to 4- and 5-day — is that it will make it more feasible to reach a target of 95 percent on time. This, in turn, will make delivery of the mail more “consistent” and “reliable.”

In its Request for an Advisory Opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission, the Postal Service puts it this way (italics added):

The accompanying testimony of witness Robert Cintron (USPS-T-1) describes the proposed service changes and their benefits. As he explains, the current service standards do not reflect the declines in mail volume, and make it very difficult for the Postal Service to provide reliable and consistent service; this is evidenced by the fact that the Postal Service has consistently failed to achieve its service performance targets. In addition, attempting to meet the current standards results in high costs and inefficiencies in the transportation network, which is characterized by an over-reliance on air transportation and low utilization of truck capacity in long-haul surface transportation. (p. 6)

The Request repeats the theme of “reliable and consistent” and “more efficient” transportation again on the next page:

Overall, these changes will enable the Postal Service to provide the American people with more reliable and consistent service, through a more efficient network.  As witness Cintron notes, the Postal Service intends to consistently meet or exceed service performance targets of 95 percent through implementation of this change, as well as other initiatives. (p. 7)

And again a couple of pages later:

Overall, these testimonies demonstrate a number of significant benefits from implementing these service standard changes.  The proposed changes would enable much more reliable and consistent service for mailers. (p. 9)

In addition to claiming that lower standards will make for more “reliable and consistent service,” the Postal Service argues that one of the problems with depending on air transportation — which is necessary in order to meet a 3-day service standard for mail that has to travel over a thousand miles — is that air transport is too “complex.”

In his testimony, Mr. Cintron explains it this way:

By moving First-Class Mail from air to surface, the Postal Service will also be able to reduce the total number of touch points for each mail piece, which mitigates opportunities for delay and, therefore, improves service reliability.

Cintron includes this diagram to show how much simpler it is to avoid air transport.

The Postal Service included a similar version of this diagram in its 10-year plan with the following comment: “The Postal Service does not own planes and is forced to rely on third parties for air transport. The complexity and constraints of the air network are contributing factors to the poor performance of First-Class Mail.”

Service standards, the “reliability” issue, and the “complexity” of the transportation network all come together this passage in the 10-year plan:

The Postal Service sets standards for mail delivery so that customers and mailers can expect consistent and predictable delivery. However, as noted above, we have not met current targets for First-Class Mail composite or First-Class Mail 3- to 5-day service standards over the past eight years. The current standards do not reflect dramatically declining mail volumes, and require the Postal Service to use complex, high cost and unreliable transportation networks. They are simply unsuitable for setting realistic expectations for timely and reliable mail delivery in today’s environment.

These examples from the 10-year plan and the Postal Service’s materials for the Advisory Opinion make it clear that the proposed changes to Section 101 of Title 39 are not as minor as they appear to be.

When it comes to rationalizing its plan to downgrade delivery speed, “reliable” and “consistent” are the Postal Service’s mantra. And aside from some cost savings (the estimates for which will be disputed during the Advisory Opinion process), the main justification for eliminating air transportation is that it will “reduce complexity.”

Amending section 101(f) to add “consistent” and “reliable” and “reduces complexity” will accomplish only one thing: it will make it easier for the Postal Service to downgrade service standards, eliminate air transportation for mail within the contiguous U.S., and increase average delivery time from about 2.5 day to 3 days.

There is much in the proposed legislation to recommend it, but there is no reason for Section 208 to be included. Congress should not be facilitating Postmaster General DeJoy’s efforts to slow down the mail.