- - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The U.S. Postal Service is in precarious shape. The postmaster general and his leadership team have been commissioned to give Congress and the public the assurance that they’re doing something to correct a culture of waste and mismanagement and to put the agency on a new track. It’s not working.

The Postal Service has lost $21 billion over the past two years, and billions more will be spent by the end of this year. Not even the world’s greatest financial wizard could make numbers this bad look good. Unless Congress approves a bailout, the agency will collapse.

The Postal Service isn’t very good at math. The agency’s inspector general recently determined that the postal officials can’t even keep track of how many conferences they host, where they are or how much the out-of-town fun costs.

Auditors say the Postal Service burned through $4.2 million for meetings and conferences during last year, but the agency doesn’t know for exactly what. The report notes that Postal Service officials are cooking the books they do have — improperly counting $17,318 spent on travel, for example, to attend conferences billed as “training expenses.” This is obviously a disguise.

Postal customers licking their lips on ever-pricier stamps will wince at the thought that $136,506 in postal funds were used to deliver agency executives to an extravagant all-expenses-paid trip to a Universal Postal Union event in Doha, Qatar. We deliver for you, indeed.

A separate audit complained that the Postal Service isn’t doing its duty under the National Historic Preservation Act by keeping track of its historic properties and evaluating the costs of preservation. The agency even fails to notify the National Museum of American Art, as required by law, when it “loans out or relocates a New Deal mural or sculpture.” Asked to account for the murals and sculptures that Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned as part of a public works project during the Great Depression, Postal Service officials replied that it had no answer “transparent about the status and location” of the artwork. (Translation: “We don’t have a clue.”) There may be a closet next to the dead-letter office full of missing paintings.

This isn’t the way to run a tight ship if the Postal Service expects to make the profit that Congress expects. Keeping track of inventory and facilities is one of the basic requirements of a properly run business. In terms of revenue, the Postal Service would be No. 42 on the Fortune 500 list, just above Caterpillar and PepsiCo. Caterpillar doesn’t have missing tractors, and Pepsi keeps tabs on billions of bottles of the soda, water, carbonation, corn syrup and plastic its distributors need to stock shelves in 200 countries. You can bet Pepsi knows where it all is.

Asking a government agency to perform to the standards of a private business is asking a lot, but the Postal Service must try a little harder unless it expects Congress to bail it out again and again. The postman always rings twice, but Congress has heard the doorbell more often than that. One of these days there won’t be anyone in the House (or the Senate, either) when the doorbell rings.