Thursday, September 22, 2011

USPS: Breaking the Law and the Tie That Binds

Last Thursday, Representative Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) and 74 other US representatives (including Wisconsin's own Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore) sent a letter to the chair of the Postal Regulatory Commission warning of the harm that will be done to the US Postal Service by widespread closure of post offices. Of the 75 signatories, 7 were Republicans and 68 were Democrats. (Apparently that's what "bipartisan" looks like these days.) It's unclear how helpful this warning will be, but it certainly won't hurt, and it's encouraging to know that at least some of our lawmakers are paying attention and understand what's happening in spite of all the misinformation peddled by the mainstream media.

According to the representatives, "the law requires that 'the Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas.' (39 U.S.C. 101(b)))." But oddly enough, "the USPS is centering its downsizing efforts on small post offices ... which tend to be located in rural areas." This piqued my curiosity, so I looked the law up. Here is section 101(b) in its brief and comprehensible entirety:
The Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.

No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services be insured to residents of both urban and rural communities. (emphasis added)
The law assumes that rural post offices will not be self-sustaining. In fact, it's very likely that they've never been "self-sustaining." Nevertheless, the USPS has proposed closing some 15,000 "unprofitable" post offices and has already begun the process of dismantling its "unparalleled retail network." Apparently they won't let a little thing like the law get in their way.

Moreover, as horrifying as it will be to the uber-capitalists among us, the purpose of the postal service is not to make a profit.
The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. (Section 101(a), emphasis added)
The postmaster general actually wants to close half of the nation's 32,000 post offices. "A reduction of this size would have a severe negative impact on rural America, threatening the viability of thousands of small towns across America." In many small towns, the post office is the center of community life, the constant that draws and holds people together. Closing those post offices would do irreparable harm to American rural life. And once the extraordinary fabric that binds the nation together is gone, there will be no getting it back.

So what's the deal with the law? It appears that the postmaster general can ignore the illegality of what he's doing with impunity. So, whose responsibility is it to see to it that they do in fact follow the law and the congressional mandate to "provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns" in order to "bind the Nation together"? How are the decision makers held accountable? And if they're not, then please explain to us which laws are meant to be followed and which are meant to be ignored?

The Postal Service "is no less valuable today than when Pony Express riders raced across the American frontier." In fact, it is considerably more valuable today. Modern technology has increased its value, rather than decreasing it. Think of all the online shopping we do—not all the packages we receive are delivered by FedEx and UPS. In fact, sending packages via the USPS is usually cheaper, providing substantial savings to consumers, corporations, entrepreneurs, and small businesses. As the representatives correctly assert, "this Constitutional institution must be strengthened, not eviscerated, because it continues to improve quality of life for our constituents."

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