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An inconvenient, but necessary, postal plan

As those of us in newspapers know well, the digital era has permanantly changed how many businesses operate. Some, such as brick-and-mortar video stores, have perished in the face of convenient digital alternatives. Other industries, such as media, are in the middle of making difficult but necessary changes in their business models.

But in Washington, time has stubbornly stood still when it comes to Congress and the U.S. Postal Service. Despite communication relying less and less on delivered paper, Congress has declined to make basic changes at the Postal Service, including some recommended by USPS officials. The result: deep, annual losses that reached $15.9 billion in 2012 alone. To cover those losses, the USPS borrows from the U.S. treasury, so taxpayers might eventually have to pick up the tab.

A pair of bills, one each in the House and Senate, offer hope. The bills’ sponsors seem open to communicating, and the Senate bill is a bipartisan effort. Both measures include common reforms such as reducing delivery to five days a week, except for medicine and packages, and at least some “to the door” delivery could be replaced with mail service to clusters of curbside boxes in neighborhoods.

The House postal bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, goes further. It would eliminate a $5.5 billion annual deposit that pays for future retirees’ health care – the biggest single contributor to postal service debt – and replace it with a smaller figure based on actuarial calculations. Issa’s plan also would eliminate the postal service’s no-layoffs policy, a move strongly opposed by postal unions.

Those unions, along with many congressional Democrats, have long fought trimming mail delivery to five days. When postal officials tried earlier this year to stop Saturday delivery, Congress snuffed out the move by writing a stipulation into its budget agreement in March. (The objection to five-day service also came from some Republican lawmakers, who like their colleagues fretted about possible backlash back home.)

The postal service continues to try to do its part to cut costs. U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has initiated a plan to close as many as 200 mail-processing centers, and post offices that lose money could see reduced hours or be closed. Issa’s bill mandates that if the latter happens, only 5 percent of shuttered post offices can be in rural districts. That’s fair – even though rural offices often serve fewer customers, people shouldn’t have to drive an hour to the nearest post office.

But make no mistake: Postal changes would bring inconvenience – and pain. Some customers might have to drive farther to find a post office. Some might be forced to walk to a neighborhood mailbox cluster instead of the box at the front of their townhouse. And, of course, such reforms would result in some postal employees losing their jobs.

None of which, however, is reason to maintain the status quo. Instead of complaining about the money-losing postal service, then doing nothing about it, Congress needs to plow ahead with reasonable, structural change. The digital era already has demanded that from private industry. It’s past time for the postal service to follow.

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