Last month, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released a draft of his Postal Reform Act of 2013, a sweeping plan to save the troubled United States Postal Service. Normally I would react to this with all the enthusiasm I muster for a root canal, but the implications are daunting.
According to its own “Five Year Plan” released this past April, the United States Postal Service lost $15.9 billion last year despite reducing its career employees by 24% in the last six years. Between 2007 and 2012 alone, mail volume has declined 25% and revenue is down 13%. There were lots of other facts and figures in the report, but it was 36 pages long and I’d just gotten the new issue of Sports Illustrated in the mail. Basically, the report states that the 2006 Congressional mandate to pre-fund retirement for all its employees (unlike any other government department) has crippled its budget. It also may have listed the “Hottest Wives and Girlfriends of The NFL,” but that could have been something else I read.
Repeating a request he made last February, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe asked Congress last Wednesday to drop mandatory Saturday delivery, a move he believes could save $2 billion a year. Rep. Issa, on the other hand, wants to save another $4 billion annually by stopping curbside delivery altogether, replacing it with fewer deliveries to “clustered” boxes on street corners. This signals the imminent demise of one of the last remaining vestiges of America’s frontier communication system: the daily home visit of a postal carrier.
Rural mail delivery was one of the cornerstones of our westward expansion. The U.S. Mail was tasked with the legal obligation to serve all Americans at the same price, regardless of geography. Now, like the telephone poles that carry everything except telephone wire these days, the USPS will have to evolve. In the process, this evolution might take the neighborhood letter carrier right off the “Christmas tip” list.
I’m a big fan of mail carriers. Growing up, I saw more of our mailman, Ed, than I ever saw of my doctors, coaches or priests. Unlike them, he made house calls. Every day, even when I forgot to shovel the sidewalk! He’d pop out of that little square MailMobile with the wheel on the wrong side and tip his cap when I saw him. I always respected how seriously he took that tiny red metal flag on our mailbox.
Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s taken away. Imagine someone trying to start a business that promises uniformed personnel delivering items from all over the world right to your home, for free. If you wanted to send something yourself, you could print out a stamp online and that same person would come to your doorstep to deliver it for you in two or three days. First class. No gas charge, no processing fee, no taxes or hidden charges.
All for 46 cents. (Unless you wanted to buy stamps that locked in lower price … forever!)
I pay 25 bucks just to check my carry-on bag on a flight for which I’ve already paid $400 — sign me up! You’d never get any investors because your business model would be laughed out of the room, but at least you’d be universally beloved. Right?
Evidently not if Issa’s plan gets enough support, and that would be a shame. After all, it’s not often we look forward to people in uniform showing up at our doorstep. If the police or fire departments are coming to my home on a regular basis, I’m probably going to jail. If other government officials are making regular appearances at my door, then mail is the least of my concerns. However, that satisfying clank of the mailbox outside my door is one of those rare times I get to see my tax dollars in action.
Our postal carriers have to trudge through knee-deep snow and black ice in winter, sizzling heat and dripping humidity in the summer, all so I can get my Shamwow deliveries and J Crew catalog. Worse, mail carriers are to dogs what ice cream trucks are to kids. At the first sight of that gray and blue uniform, I’ve seen otherwise gentle, sedate dogs erupt into fits of barking in a vain attempt to break through the front door. It’s as if Lassie is trying to warn us that Timmy fell down the well, and mail carriers have to deal with that all day long.
We should be giving them medals, not pink slips.
Just like we’ve forgotten how phones used to be tethered to a wall or that TVs used to be furniture, we’ll eventually forget how we used to have at least one house visitor six times a week. The reality is that regular curbside mail delivery was doomed to fail because the USPS had created the world’s most efficient and widely used mail system without receiving any taxpayer dollars. It was a government program that funded itself.
It was only a matter of time until the government “fixed” it.
You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.