Postal Commission’s Ambitious Agenda

I admit I’m surprised. President Bush and his staff have a lot on their plate. Tied for first place are the ongoing war against terrorism and the preparations for a more active war against Iraq. Third is getting the economy out of its malaise.

Yet the administration found time to appoint a Presidential Commission on the U.S. Postal Service. Peter R. Fisher, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for domestic finance, announced the panel, and it seems clear that he is the administration’s point person on the postal service.

However, there may be a difference in focus between the executive order establishing the commission and some of Fisher’s remarks in announcing the group.

The order asks members to prepare a report “articulating a proposed vision for the future of the United States Postal Service and recommending the legislative and administrative reforms needed to ensure the viability of postal services.” Bush asked the commission to determine the:

· Role of the postal service in the 21st century and beyond.

· Flexibility the USPS should have to change prices and control costs.

· Flexibility the USPS should have to adjust service in response to financial, competitive or market pressures.

· Ability of the USPS to maintain universal service at affordable rates over the long term.

· Extent to which postal monopoly restrictions continue to advance the public interest.

· Most appropriate governance and oversight structure for the USPS.

The mandate seems broad and strategic. Yet Fisher’s remarks conveyed to me a more limited mission.

Fisher, taking the administration’s lead on postal issues, did state that the “business model of the postal service is increasingly at risk.” He noted the challenges from declining volumes, new technologies and increasing delivery base. And he said it was an appropriate time to “reassess” and determine “how the postal service should adapt … and best fulfill its mission in the 21st century.”

These are lofty and necessary objectives. But sprinkled into his remarks are sentences like “… help us learn how the postal service can execute its mission more efficiently and cost-effectively.”

It seems to me that this is a perfect time for a commission to focus on long-term structural and viability issues and not dwell on efficiency and cost-effectiveness issues.

Assuming that Congress gets its act together and passes legislation properly reducing the postal service’s Civil Service Retirement System pension contribution, the USPS and the commission will have time to focus on strategic issues.

With James A. Johnson and Harry J. Pearce as co-chairs, the administration selected two individuals with impressive resumes in both the private and public sectors.

Johnson was chairman/CEO of Fannie Mae for nine years, giving him experience in managing a quasi-governmental institution. Many think that the Fannie Mae model might serve as a roadmap for a future USPS structure. He also served four years as executive assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale. Johnson is now chairman of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and serves on the boards of six publicly owned corporations.

Pearce, an attorney, was vice chairman of General Motors from 1996 to 2001. He retired from GM and in May 2001 became chairman of Hughes Electronics, which GM owns. Hughes is better known through its DirectTV subsidiary. Pearce also serves on the boards of two publicly owned corporations and many nonprofit organizations. He served as a staff judge advocate in the Air Force and as a U.S. Magistrate in his native North Dakota.

These are two busy men. I suspect the other seven members also lead busy lives. They have all been given a taxing assignment, with a report due by July 31. This leaves only seven months to meet, get organized, do their research, reach their conclusions and write the report. This strikes me as a very tight timetable for an issue that affects all Americans and directly affects the 9 million jobs and $900 billion of commerce that require a functioning, reliable and cost-effective universal delivery service.

This may be the postal service’s and the mailing industry’s one shot at the apple for a long time. Let’s hope that, despite the obstacles noted herein, the commission hits its target.

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