- - Thursday, April 30, 2020

The U.S. Postal Service has been sick for a long time. The coronavirus has put it on the critical list at the same time we’re more dependent on it, especially for packages with essential supplies, medicine and even food because of the self-quarantine imposed on most all of us. What to do?

Congressional Republicans have lately had little to say about the matter while President Trump is weighing in heavily. His big idea, one endorsed in the postal reform plan he commissioned in 2019, would be what amounts to a package tax ostensibly levied on Amazon and the other big shippers but paid by the consumers who order products online and through catalogs.

The president is so intent on getting his way, he recently threatened to hold up a coronavirus relief bill if the Postal Service didn’t agree to what he wanted. “If they don’t raise the price of the service they give,” he said at an April 24 briefing, “I’m not signing anything.”

Mr. Trump has said he’d like the price for package delivery quadrupled or even quintupled but that what would likely drive business from the Postal Service to UPS and other private delivery companies — which have an easier time competing on price points because they can adjust them more simply — as people shipping items and people to whom those items were being shipped look for cheaper ways to do it. The Postal Service doesn’t get much in additional revenues under that scenario.

What Mr. Trump wants, and which he reiterated at Wednesday’s White House recovery roundtable, would force those who must use the USPS — a critical lifeline during the pandemic for many Americans, especially those in rural areas — to pay more for the items they ship and receive.

The Democrats’ answer is to provide the Postal Service with additional funding without requiring the USPS to engage in any self-correcting behavior. But to do that would be, echoing a long-ago observation by humorist P.J. O’Rourke, like giving car keys and whiskey to teenage boys. It would only encourage continued fiscal irresponsibility.

All is not lost, however. There are ideas floating around the postal policy community worth considering — even implementing now in order to secure emergency funding covering COVID-19-induced losses that would keep the Postal Service operating through year’s end. The opponents of such measures (and they do exist) will call these measures drastic when they are, in reality, simple, commonsense steps businesses large and small take all the time to reduce overhead and bring expenses down when circumstances require. The U.S. Postal Service could do them tomorrow.

The first order of business would be for the postmaster general to immediately impose a freeze on all new hires. That’s the kind of move companies in trouble take near the beginning of the process to set things right, kind of like the first thing one does when one wants to get out of a hole is to stop digging. The USPS could get by with fewer workers than it has now. That may make their jobs a bit tougher, but they’d still have them.

A second reform, one which Mr. Trump’s postal reform task force approved (and which would dovetail nicely with the need to spread the workload out if a hiring freeze is instituted), is the expansion of third-party relationships in midstream logistics and processing. The USPS doesn’t need to do everything it does. There are private companies that provide many of those same services in the commercial market that can do them cheaper and more efficiently. Taking advantage of what they can do would save the Postal Service considerable amounts of money.

One last idea is the sale or lease of surplus assets, particularly real estate. Most taxpayers have no conception of how vast the Postal Service’s holdings are. Many facilities are leased but, according to a variety of sources, the USPS owns more than 8,000 facilities that range in size from massive sorting centers down to tiny one-man or no-man operations. It involves an estimated 200 million square feet of interior space and 900 million square feet of land — not all of which is operationally vital or even necessary. The USPS doesn’t have to sell it all, and what can’t be sold might still be divided, but any sales would provide additional revenue.

Congress may well need to step in and help the Postal Service. But the USPS should be expected to do what it can itself to help stop the flood of red ink in which our mail carriers might eventually drown. And all that could be accomplished while preserving Saturday delivery, which is always the first thing the USPS talks about cutting when reform comes up.

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