Forging a Coalition for Postal Reform

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Many mailers have concluded that reform of the organization, structure and functions of the U.S. Postal Service has become an urgent necessity.


Growing deficit projections, potential volume declines in First-Class mail as a result of the revolution in communications technology and the USPS' inability to function as a business in an increasingly competitive communications market have created a crisis mentality, though that feeling is not yet shared by Congress or the public. Mailers are concerned that they may be priced out of the market or, at the very least, suffer from increasingly inefficient and irrelevant postal operations.


The communications revolution has been faced by most major industrialized nations. Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden are on their way to a complete restructuring of their postal services, some having become, or are in the process of becoming, completely private companies. These newly structured national postal systems are even beginning to compete against the USPS in the international and domestic markets. In contrast, our postal service is hamstrung by archaic rate-making procedures and organizational structure that prevent it from operating efficiently and effectively in the modern communications market.


Achieving postal reform in the United States will be no easy task. Six years of work on postal reform legislation by Rep. John McHugh, chairman of the House subcommittee on the postal service (which has since been abolished) was largely ignored by Congress and the administration and died upon the close of the 106th Congress, as it also died in the 104th and 105th Congresses. Recent hearings before the House of Representatives and the Senate have generated some interest in reform legislation, but concern expressed by a few members of Congress at these hearings is far from the critical mass needed to get postal reform off the ground. There still are only the most vaguely formed plans to resuscitate the issue in the 107th Congress, and these are being considered seriously by only a few House members.


It is increasingly clear to a broad segment of the postal community that major reform is urgently needed now, even if there is no consensus on exactly what those reforms should be. A confluence of several elements of what political scientists call "the policy stream" is needed for postal reform to become reality. Some of the most significant are:


Convince political and government leaders that a crisis is imminent and that major postal reform is necessary. One problem McHugh (and proponents of postal reform) had was that virtually no one in Congress and the administration thought there was an imminent - or even remote - crisis that needed to be addressed or, even if there were, that anything should be done about it. While recent postal and General Accounting Office reports of an impending USPS fiscal crisis have added some fuel to the fire, much more needs to be done to make postal reform a priority in the administration and Congress.


A strong, coordinated and integrated professional public relations and lobbying campaign must be organized to convince a critical mass of political and public opinion leaders that postal reform must be placed on their agenda.


Build a broad-based coalition of postal-related business interests. During the past six years, strong mailer support has come from a relatively narrow segment of the mailing industry. Even within this segment, intensity of support varied. The result was that many viewed postal reform as benefiting only major mailers. A broader coalition of mailers from all classes of mail must be forged.


Include major postal labor unions and employee organizations in the coalition. Support of postal employees is essential, particularly since postal labor organizations are almost unique among labor unions in their influence among both Republicans and Democrats on postal issues. In the past, there has been interest and involvement by some of these organizations, again with varying degrees of intensity. Care must be taken to broaden this group. Progress has been made on this front, but more needs to be done.


Work with major consumer groups and senior citizens organizations. Consumer representation was conspicuously absent during the debate on the McHugh bill, except to the limited extent postal competitors claimed to represent "Aunt Minnie" mail, too. Consumer and senior citizens organizations can provide the crucial edge to the postal reform drive by taking it out of the realm of the narrow special interest of mailers.


Reach out to the larger business community for support. Organizations such as the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce might be interested in a properly oriented postal reform package. The support of these groups could be a significant factor. Inclusion of these organizations would help offset the strong lobbying efforts of postal competitors such as United Parcel Service against postal reform as allegedly anti-competitive.


Develop an effective grass-roots program. Postal reform activities in the past have been noticeably lacking an effective grass-roots component. The organizations and interests above have great potential for a broad-based grass-roots effort, but it will take a consistent, well-organized effort run by professionals in grass-roots organization.


Establish a close liaison with postal management and Board of Governors in developing a viable reform package supported by the postal service. USPS management and its Board of Governors have approached this most gingerly. However, to paraphrase the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, if you expect support, you have to ask. The postal service must be an aggressive partner in the push for postal reform, or it will never happen.


All of this can be done, but it will take a large commitment of resources and people from a multitude of players in the postal reform process. Some steps have been taken, but much more needs to be done - and quickly - if we are to achieve efficient and businesslike postal services in the 21st century.
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