At midnight last night, the US Postal Service defaulted to the US Treasury to the tune of $5.5 Billion. The USPS has said that this will not affect day-to-day operations, but that they are currently looking for a way to pay the money they owe.
Here's the funny part: Congress has been trying to work on a bill that would have saved the USPS from this default. In fact, a bill to do just that passed the Senate a week ago. However, the House did not take it up, and decided instead to go on recess, leaving the USPS to default.
Not only that, but members of the House, most notably Darrell Issa, also proposed a strategy to make the USPS more solvent. However, once again, the House didn't move on any of the bills and simply let the USPS fail.
Here's the thing. As most people are now aware, the USPS is very unique when it comes to its business model. It is required, by law, to fund retirement and health benefits for its employees 75 years in advance. Yes. 75. That means, the USPS has to put away money for employees that aren't even hired yet, aren't even of working age yet. No other corporation or government agency has such a mandate. The result of this, coupled with the slow-down in standard shipping due to Internet purchasing and so forth, has meant that the USPS has seen its profits whittle away to nothing.
The postmaster general, Patrick Donahoe, put forward a proposal that would have cut costs for the agency, which included job cuts, closing mail distribution centers, and cutting hours of operation. He also asked that Congress lift some of the debilitating requirements on funding retirement benefits. Again, Congress refused to move on the issue before leaving for a month.
What this amounts to, in my mind, is gross negligence of duty on the part of Congress. They knew this was coming, they had the time and the plan to make sure it didn't happen, and they deliberately ignored the problem.
My hypothesis is that these same Congressmen will issue statements decrying the USPS default, blaming Obama, blaming bad business practices, blaming wasteful spending by the agency, and will use this as a way to try and eliminate the USPS.
I've seen a lot of people who suggest this would be a good thing, since we could rely on for-profit, private mail services for our basic mail. Here's the issue. First of all, I don't have to pay for the junk mail that I get now. With a for-profit company, I would have to pay to get mail that I don't even want. Secondly, those for-profit companies generally don't go to far-flung, remote places to deliver, opting instead to drop packages at nearby post offices for people to pick up. Without post offices, where would those packages go? And, how would those people get their daily mail? Would they have to travel tens of miles every single day just to find out if they got anything important? That's ridiculous.
Our USPS is an amazing organization, and has been since its creation. It is a cornerstone of what makes our country work. That can't simply be ignored. But, we must work with the USPS to become like any other agency. We shouldn't be forcing them into an impossible financial situation. That's just wrong. We shouldn't be squeezing them out by demanding that they meet unparalleled standards of practice. We need to let them be profitable, as they used to be, and celebrate all the work they do for people.