Postal Reform: Everyone Stands in the Way
For months now,
long overdue reform of the U.S. Postal Service has languished
after different versions were passed by the Senate and House of
Representatives. Many observers had hoped that the two chambers of
Congress and the Bush Administration would work out their
differences before lawmakers returned home for elections.
But while they came very close earlier this month, the system has
failed to produce what would have been the first significant
update to the laws governing the Service in 30 years.
When Congress returns for a few brief weeks starting Nov. 13, it's
still possible lawmakers will salvage some of these reforms. But
it seems rather unlikely that a strong reform package will be
passed during this "lame duck" session.
At points earlier in the process, many observers and interested
parties were enthusiastic about the prospects for reform. And
while the latest versions are far from perfect, they still contain
a number of critical improvements.
Both the House and Senate plans address many of the problems
hindering USPS operations. Both limit the Postal Service to
offering products and services that are intimately related to its
principal mission -- delivering mail. They would require USPS to
provide increased financial transparency. And they would create a
new "Postal Regulatory Commission" (PRC), with strong oversight
authority over the agency.
Further, both plans share similar provisions that would give USPS
more flexibility to enter into agreements (like worksharing) with
the private sector, while taking steps to ensure that individual
consumers will not have to shoulder the costs of excessive
discounts to business mailers.
Perhaps most important, both versions would attempt to prevent
USPS from abusing its government monopoly.
If both versions share so many positive aspects, and both
represent the first major postal-reform bill in decades, why have
they been stalled for so long?
The answer is simple: At every twist and turn, labor unions and
special-interest groups have either stood in the way or withheld
their support for consumer-friendly changes.
The postal labor unions have voiced the loudest opposition to the
bill. They've tried to block a range of reforms -- including
increased worksharing; the PRC's greater regulatory oversight;
limitations on workers' compensation claims; and an inflationary
cap on rate hikes.
Indeed, William Burrus, the President of the American Postal
Workers Union, has claimed that "only through the combined efforts
of the postal craft unions (APWU, National Association of Letter
Carriers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union, and National Rural
Letters Carriers Association) were we able to delay final action
on this bill."
Postal Service management itself has also lobbied against the
reforms. Last year, the Postal Board of Governors sent the House
Government Reform Committee a letter outlining several concerns
with both the House and Senate versions of the bill, refusing to
endorse either version until their concerns were addressed.
Most notable was the fact that the Postal Service would rather
abandon reform altogether than live with provisions that would
give strong independent oversight of its business and pricing
Also at odds over specific reforms were the bulk mailer
consortiums (led by the Direct Marketing Association, the Magazine
Publishers of America, and American Business Media), the Newspaper
Association of America and the private-sector parcel delivery
Ultimately, though, political officials have been responsible for
the lack of movement of these reforms. Unwilling or unable to push
on when the enthusiasm of the entrenched postal interests waned,
decision-makers may now have missed an opportunity to help the
consumers who are the American public.
With no clear path to the finish line now, it looks as if we are
destined to continue to pay for, and be served by, a Postal
Service operating under a business model devised more than three
decades ago - and one that that meets the needs of its labor
unions and special interests better than those of its consumers.
Sam Ryan is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think
tank based in Arlington, Virginia. He can be reached at