The U.S. Postal Service is older than the country itself, delivers to 153 million homes and businesses six and increasingly seven days a week, and consistently ranks as the public’s most trusted federal agency. Yet misinformation about it abounds. Case in point: A recent op-ed in these pages properly argued that the Postal Service needs a full and operating Board of Governors – but it badly misrepresented the financial situation at USPS, with talk only of losses and liabilities.
The Postal Service historically has not been a partisan or an ideological issue – and it shouldn’t be now. To promote an informed discussion, here are some facts your readers may find useful.
For starters, the Postal Service is operationally profitable – $1.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2015; $2.9 billion total over the past three years. And the first two months of fiscal 2016 – November and December – already have produced $772 million in operating profits.
These results are not flukes but rather are based on structural factors that augur well for the future. As the economy improves from the Great Recession, letter revenue has stabilized. Meanwhile, with online shopping growing because of the Internet, package revenue is skyrocketing, up in fiscal 2015 by 11.4 percent over the prior year.
These impressive financial performances are occurring without a dime of taxpayer money. For decades, the Postal Service has by law relied on the revenue it earns selling stamps and services.
There are challenges, but the major one is unrelated to the mail, stemming instead from congressional politics. In 2006, a lame-duck Congress mandated that the Postal Service pre-fund retiree health benefits. No other agency or company has to pre-fund even one year ahead; the Postal Service must pre-fund decades’ worth of these benefits in advance. That $5.6 billion annual charge is the “red ink” you hear about.
Your commentary noted that the Postal Service has been unable to make these payments in recent years, and used that to deny that pre-funding accounts for the red ink. But the facts say otherwise; whether the pre-funding payment is made or not, it goes on the ledger as a charge, thereby creating red ink.
Without this unique and unfair burden, the narrative would be as follows: Here’s a government entity that, with no taxpayer money and faced with a still soft economy plus the growing reach of the Internet, once again earned a billion dollar-plus operating profit.
Despite the efforts of some commentators to use this artificial financial “crisis” to advance an agenda of degrading or privatizing the Postal Service, it enjoys widespread public support, including approval ratings well above 80 percent and a long-held designation as the most-trusted federal agency. Many Democrats support the mission of the Postal Service, and some of its strongest backers are conservative Republicans — for good reason.
The Postal Service is based in the Constitution. It’s critical for businesses and rural areas. It’s the country’s largest civilian employer of military veterans; a quarter of all letter carriers are wearing their second uniform. It’s older than the country itself and the first postmaster was Benjamin Franklin. It doesn’t rely on taxpayers. It’s the centerpiece of a $1.3 trillion mailing industry that employs 7.5 million Americans in the private sector.
Letter carriers boost communities and families through such volunteer actions as conducting the nation’s largest single-day food drive or sometimes by saving lives on the route.
And the postal network is invaluable in ways few people consider. For example, when then-President George W. Bush looked for ways after 9/11 to protect metropolitan areas in the event of a biological attack, he turned to the nation’s only universal delivery network. On a volunteer basis, letter carriers in several major metro areas have been trained and equipped to deliver medicines to every household within 48 hours of an attack—to avert panic and reduce casualties. Just imagine what it would cost to set up such a program from scratch.
If lawmakers address the artificial “crisis” they created, the Postal Service can continue to provide Americans and their businesses with the industrial world’s most-affordable delivery network.