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Missing the Point on USPS' Needs

While browsing through some recent postal news items, I happened across an article written by Bill McAllister, the Washington bureau chief at the Denver Post.

McAllister wrote about the recent successful effort by one of Colorado’s senators, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, to direct the U.S. Postal Service to issue another fundraising stamp. The stamp in the senator’s legislation would raise money to combat domestic violence, certainly a very worthy cause. The first of these fundraising stamps was the breast cancer stamp, which went on sale in 1998 and has raised more than $20 million for research against the disease.

It is not my intention to denigrate Campbell’s efforts. Indeed, scarcely a day goes by that we do not hear of some horrific act committed by a spouse against another family member. Yet it is hard to compare congressional acts intended to reduce and combat disease and violence with congressional acts intended to save institutions. Both can be worthy. So if the domestic violence stamp can raise awareness or assist in treatment of these violent acts, we should be all for it.

However, the future of the postal service, as we know it, is at risk. The question before Congress and the Bush administration is whether they will provide the support necessary to keep the postal service afloat. They have provided financial and other assistance for the airline and insurance industries. I heard recently that Congress is being asked to consider legislation to bail out the hotel and tourist industries at a cost of $3 billion to $4 billion.

Jonathan Tisch, co-chairman/CEO of Loews Hotels and son of Loews co-chairman and former postmaster general Preston R. Tisch, is lobbying for legislation that, among other things, would:

• Provide a tax credit for buying a travel ticket for more than 100 miles from home.

• Allow 100 percent deductibility of business meals and entertainment.

Let’s get back to the real world. The Bush administration has committed $175 million to purchase equipment to sanitize mail. But the postal service’s need will be much greater. The Sept. 11 terrorist acts and the anthrax letters have had a devastating effect on the postal service. Mail volume, already reeling because of a weak economy, is down more than 6 percent for this fiscal year compared with last year.

Postmaster general John E. Potter has testified that the USPS needs $5 billion from Congress to help pay for the impact of the terrorists’ actions. According to Potter, the direct cost of the terrorist attacks is $3 billion. This cost includes damage to equipment and facilities in New York, anthrax testing of employees and equipment, and equipment and procedures to sanitize mail. In addition, Potter said there might be another $2 billion needed to make up for volume and revenue shortfalls prompted by the attacks.

The reaction of the Washington powers to the postal service’s plight has been underwhelming.

Keep in mind that the users of the postal service have been paying for the system and are expected to ante up even more. This year, the January and July rate increases have affected most commercial mailers to the tune of more than 10 percent. The Sept. 24 filing by the postal service was expected to increase rates in October 2002 by another 9 percent.

Many are aware that attempts are being made to negotiate a settlement in the current rate case. However, the postal service wants a settlement with new rates in place, perhaps as early as April 2002. And the pain is not soon to be over. Rumors abound that soon after the new rates are in place, the postal service will file for higher rates again.

It is a mystery that the mailing industry has been unable to generate the kind of support for an infusion of federal money that the airline and insurance industries have. It is not as if the industry is small. According to “Seizing Opportunity,” the report of the 2001 Mailing Industry Task Force, “This core mailing industry, generating an estimated $871 billion in commerce annually, employs 9 million workers.”

So why are there no friends in high places?

As well-meaning as the postal service’s Board of Governors is, it is almost devoid of political influence. If former Sen. George Mitchell had a seat on the USPS board, instead of the FedEx board of directors he does sit on, we might see more interest on the part of Congress to assist the postal service.

But the bottom line is, there is too much fiddling going on while the postal service, a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure, may be burning.

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