Congress has passed legislation preventing the U.S. Postal Service from saving $2 billion per year. But if you think legislators offered a different plan to help rescue the mail service, you don't understand how Congress has wrecked a once-proud government agency.
In February, the Postal Service said after years of deliberation that it would end Saturday mail delivery beginning in August. That was supposed to save $2 billion per year and be a down payment on much deeper reforms. The postal service now loses about $16 billion per year and is about as desperate for an overhaul as General Motors was before it declared bankruptcy in 2009.
There was a predictable outcry in response to that move, yet Americans quickly got used to the idea that we don't need Saturday mail delivery. A Pew Research poll showed a 54 percent approval rating for the idea. A Gallup poll showed a 63 percent approval rating. That's not surprising, given that email, electronic transfers and other kinds of technology have significantly reduced most people's need for physical mail delivery.
Congress has now negated that move, however. It recently passed legislation requiring Saturday mail delivery, which is part of a broader bill funding government operations, so President Obama is likely to sign it. What Congress has done is basically tell a government agency it must lose more money than necessary; instead of slimming down, it must remain bloated.
This comes, of course, during a big battle over the need to cut government spending. The notorious sequester, now approaching its second month, has forced the White House to cancel public tours and the Pentagon to close base commissaries serving military families one day a week. The Federal Aviation Administration is warning it may have to furlough air-traffic controllers, snarling airline schedules.
In Washington doublespeak, the postal service is an "independent establishment" that's no longer funded by taxpayer dollars. Yet it borrows from the Treasury when it comes up short and may require a federal bailout if it reaches the point at which normal companies would declare bankruptcy.
The biggest problem isn't the postal service itself. It's the agency's quasi-governmental nature, which still requires Congressional approval for major reforms such as closing post offices, branching into other lines of business or changing delivery schedules.
As everybody knows by now, the last group you'd want running any kind of business is Congress. Schoolchildren, not yet cynical enough to bleed public agencies for political gain, would probably do a better job overseeing the mail service.
There's no shortage of reform plans for giving the postal service more independence, cutting costs, finding new ways to raise revenue and making the agency healthy again. The postal service itself has lobbied hard for reforms. If the USPS were a typical corporation, they would have been put in place long ago or management would have been fired.
Yet Congress won't pass them. The problem seems to be House Republicans, who won't completely explain why they're opposed to fixing the postal service. But there's plenty of behind-the-scenes pressure to keep the red ink flowing. Private shippers such as FedEx and UPS don't want the postal service competing against them with a free hand.
Bulk mailers insist Saturday delivery is essential. And many members of Congress don't want the burden of explaining to voters why the local post office got shut down in their district but not somebody else's.
But don't worry, a few members of Congress have hinted they might approve the end of Saturday delivery after all, once they've shown how much they hate the idea by voting against it. And wasted a few more billion dollars.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.