- ... the real problem is that the Postal Service labors under the burden of accumulated obligations. Over our nation's history, the postal system has been used by Congress to fulfill a wide variety of social and political objectives beyond the delivery of letters and packages: frequent, speedy and consistent delivery; universally available letter-mail services at reasonable and uniform rates; support of a large and well-paid work force; continuation of an expensive rural network; maintenance of numerous collection and distribution points; etc.
- The problem here isn't that nobody knows how to produce an efficient and cost-effective mail-delivery system. That wouldn't be difficult -- at least, not if the Postal Service operated in a political vacuum. To operate the mail system in a more economically rational and sustainable way, postal executives would tailor services to economic demand.
- ...whenever the Postal Service has tried to save the whole system by cutting its nails (much less cutting off a limb), members of Congress, who ultimately control all postal policy, squeal like cats on a hot tin roof and prevent postal executives from acting. They're afraid of the electoral consequences of imposing sacrifice on their constituents and on well-organized postal workers.
I further agree that the real problem is Congress itself and the difficulty that it has in making decisions that could negatively affect any constituent. Mr. Tierney notes that compared to the federal deficit, the problem facing the Postal Service is small and the sacrifices born by postal stakeholders would be relatively modest. (This is not to say that the loss of one's job is a modest sacrifice for the individual.) As he states:
If members of Congress continue to be unable to bring themselves to allocate some pain to us on something that we ultimately can handle with a bit of Tylenol, how can they possibly make the really hard decisions that may require morphine? A big part of the problem is that it's their pain that they're worried about, not ours. Legislators are fixated on avoiding the hard decisions that might negatively affect their reelection chances. We're never going to solve any of our acute enduring problems as long as we have a Congress full of wannabe legislative careerists.
Note: Mr. Tierney has a wonderful description of the failure of the PRA and PAEA in a footnote. I present it in full below.
The sad thing about that is that in the early 1970s, Congress dealt with a postal crisis of that time by transforming the governing arrangements of the postal system with the objective of freeing it from political constraints so that it would be free to operate in a more "businesslike" fashion. The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 changed the postal service from the old cabinet-level Post Office Department into an "independent establishment" of the federal government -- not quite a government corporation, but very much like one. But the "freeing from political constraints" part of the reform was all pretense; Congress insisted on maintaining ultimate control over all important decisions of postal policy. So the autonomy of postal executives still doesn't extend to important decisions about the scope and form of postal services. Their hands are continually stayed by members of Congress who fear that the political costs to designing a more rational and sustainable system would be too great.