Column: Postal Reform Then and Now; A Study in Contrasts

Recognizing that a massive overhaul is needed, the U.S. Postal Service released its much-anticipated transformation plan on April 5. If there is any disappointment, however, it is that the proposed actions probably do not go far enough, fast enough.

The 450-page transformation goes into great detail citing regulatory and legislative actions needed so the agency can survive in today’s climate. After all, the USPS is working under 32-year-old rules passed by Congress in 1970 as the Postal Reorganization Act.

While a growing number of mail users (but by no means all) have become convinced that restructuring is necessary, legislation has languished in the House of Representatives for almost eight years. There is no indication that support for reform will reach a critical mass anytime soon. Why not?

The answer can be found in a study of the successful passage of the 1970 reorganization act. For several years before it passed, many members of the postal community had become concerned about the antiquated procedures and infrastructure of the nation’s post offices.

On top of this was an antiquated political patronage system. All postmasters and rural carriers were political appointees, many selected with only a passing regard for their managerial abilities. Congress sporadically set rates with virtually no understanding of the economics of the business. The chief executive of this business, the postmaster general, was usually one of the president’s top political operatives and normally paid scant attention to its operation.

Despite this, little was done until a crisis focused national attention on the post office. In 1966, the massive Chicago Post Office ground to a halt. More mail was coming into the building than could be processed and sent back out. The paralysis took three weeks to straighten out.

This was the catalyst for President Johnson’s appointment of the Commission on Postal Organization, at the recommendation of postmaster general Larry O’Brien. The chairman of the commission was retired AT&T chairman Frederick Kappel. The commission consisted of nine business, academic and labor leaders with no direct connection to the post office.

The commission’s report calling for a sweeping reorganization of the Post Office Department was issued at the end of Johnson’s administration. Incoming President Nixon strongly endorsed the concept and started the ball rolling toward introduction of reform legislation by Rep. Morris Udall (D-AZ) early in 1969.

The lobbying effort for reorganization came from the newly formed Citizens Committee for Postal Reform. The co-chairmen were O’Brien, and former Republican Sen. Thruston B. Morton. This effort was supplemented by an unusually heavy lobbying effort by postmaster general Winton “Red” Blount and a team of top Republican political operatives who were appointed by the president primarily to work on reorganization.

The battle for postal reorganization was at times bitter trench warfare, and its outcome was always in doubt. Formidable opponents included the politically powerful postal unions, some powerful members of Congress who did not like losing the postal patronage they controlled and some mailers who had developed sweetheart deals with Congress.

The legislative logjam was broken after a second crisis, a wildcat strike of postal workers in March 1970 that began in New York and spread nationwide. The resolution of that strike, which showed business and labor that reform was needed, cleared the way for its passage.

Fast-forward to 1995, when the new chairman of the House subcommittee on postal service, Rep. John McHugh, took the reins. As in the 1960s, there had been several years of growing concern about the future of the postal service in a radically new communications market. Numerous advisory committees, studies and reports issued warnings about the coming demise of the USPS as we know it unless major reforms were made.

After a Herculean effort by McHugh, and reams of testimony at dozens of hearings through three full Congresses, nothing has happened except approval of McHugh’s legislation by his subcommittee during the last Congress. The subcommittee was abolished at the beginning of the current Congress, so we don’t even have that anymore.

To find the reasons, we need only to look at the successful effort more than 30 years ago. The problem is what has not happened.

First, there has been no meaningful involvement by the president, neither in the Clinton nor the Bush administration. The active support and involvement of both Johnson and Nixon was essential to the process in 1970. Nor has postal reform been on the agenda of the congressional leadership of both parties.

Second, there has been no broad coalition with the huge resources necessary to mount a campaign supporting reform. Reform will not become a reality without a broad, national coalition willing to put significant political and financial resources on the line.

Third, opposition to reform, largely from postal competitors, has been highly focused and well articulated, as opposed to inconsistent and diverse efforts on the part of many proponents of reform. This has shown signs of improving with a coalition of mailers and postal employee organizations, but there are still too many outside the fold to provide the kind of focus and resources necessary for success.

Fourth, the USPS has not led the reform effort with anywhere near the intensity that the leaders of the Post Office Department did in 1969 and 1970.

Finally, there has been no defining event or crisis to focus attention on the need for reform similar to collapse of the Chicago post office or the wildcat strike. Sept. 11 was viewed by some as that defining event, but that has not turned out to be the case.

The transformation plan is a good start, but it is not the answer for reform. Much work remains, particularly by the USPS and those to whom a viable service is a necessity. n

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