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What's Really To Blame for the Postal Service's Woes

Hint: It's not the failure to "run like a business."

Over at our (big) sister site, The Atlantic, James Fallows has been on a tear lately with a series of posts about the Postal Service's decision to end Saturday mail delivery. Two items stand out. 

In the first, Fallows refers to a piece by John Tierney in Salon making the case that the Postal Service is a well-run operation, but is hamstrung by actions of Congress, most notably the requirement to pre-fund 75 years worth of retirement benefits for workers who have yet to be hired.

Of course, we (along with others) have been reporting this at Government Executive for years. The Postal Service is as close to a business you'll find in the federal government, but still is so hamstrung by legislative requirements (there's a reason UPS and FedEx don't deliver to every address in the country) that declaring that it simply ought to be more businesslike is a hollow argument. 

In a follow-up post, Fallows quotes from a reader on not just the efficiency, but the bravery of postal employees:

I, too, have worked at USPS and am now an executive in a Fortune 50 company.  USPS had a speedy, efficient structure compared to the corporate bureaucracy I now experience.  It's funny, the reactions I receive when I say I once worked at USPS.  Most frequently, I receive condolences.  I quickly object to that sentiment.  Some of the smartest, most hardworking people I have ever met work for USPS in both management and craft jobs.

Congress is the real villain here, but it's not surprising.  A perfect example is the anthrax-crisis of 2001.  In the midst of those terrible days when no one knew where or  when the next deadly letter would arrive, the Congress of the United States ran out of DC for weeks.  Postal workers came to work every day.  Within 90 days of the crisis, USPS engineers were testing a new processing machine that would detect bio-hazards in the mailstream and wouldn't disburse deadly contaminents into the air at postal facilities every time the machine was cleaned.  Four months later, USPS began delivering these new machines to processing centers.

Given all the constraints on government operations in areas ranging from procurement to personnel management, the challenge of making a federal organization run efficiently is simply much greater than it is in the private sector. Under the circumstances, the achievements of an organization like the Postal Service should be celebrated, not mocked. And if we as a country demand that it deliver mail six days a week while setting aside billions of dollars to cover the retirement benefits of its workforce, then we should be prepared to pay the price for that decision.  

(Image via Susan Law Cain /

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