By Dan Casey – April 6, 2015
There’s no sign that problems with the region’s U.S. Mail service are letting up. And all of it might be related to an obscure law Congress passed in 2006 that caused a financial crisis in the U.S. Postal Service.
Bill Bunch’s March car payment also arrived way late. Bunch, who’s running for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 9th District, dropped it in the mail in Tazewell Feb. 18. It was due March 3 at his credit union in Atlanta.
Bunch is a former letter carrier. He retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 2006, after 30 years.
By March 17, the credit union had not received Bunch’s payment and was threatening a $20 late fee. It finally showed up, and the fee was waived. After talking to folks there, Bunch thinks he’s figured out what happened.
More than ever the postal service relies on technology to sort mail, Bunch noted. He believes his payment got stuck to the back of another letter in a mail-processing machine, and ended up delivered to that other letter’s addressee. “It’s not an uncommon occurrence,” he said.
The unintended recipient “had written on it, ‘not for this address’ and put it back in the mail stream,” Bunch said. He wasn’t sure of the exact date the credit union received it.
As a former insider, Bunch has a more informed perspective on mail delivery issues than many. For some good reasons, he places the blame for current delivery problems squarely on Congress.
Back in 2006, on a voice vote, Congress enacted a law called the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. I last wrote about that a couple years ago, under the headline “The most insane law by Congress, ever?”
The bipartisan bill was designed to give the postal service more flexibility in pricing so it could be more competitive in the future. One of its sponsors was former Rep. Tom Davis, who retired in 2008. I interviewed him about it in 2014.
Late in 2006, Davis told me the Bush administration threatened to veto the bill unless Congress added a provision requiring that the postal service pay in advance for the health benefits of its retirees 75 years into the future.
The law Congress ultimately enacted forced the then-profitable, self-supporting postal service to pony up more than $50 billion over a 10-year period. Essentially, it had to pay now for the benefits of future retirees who haven’t even been born yet.
That’s what made it so bizarre. No other government agency or private business operates under such a burden. Even crazier, all those billions never were set aside. The money went into the federal government’s general fund, where it was spent.
Ever since that law was enacted, the postal service has been mired in a financial crisis that Congress created. And it’s been slashing its workforce and operations in a desperate attempt to cope with the red ink.
In 2006, according to a report by the Postmaster General, the postal service employed 696,138 people full-time. By 2015, that number was down to 491,863 — a reduction of 29.3 percent.
In 2011, the postal service announced it would close or consolidate 252 of its 487 distribution facilities, a reduction of more 51 percent. One was the Roanoke distribution center. (Earlier, the postal service had closed Lynchburg’s distribution center).
“Service has been cut to the bone in order to survive,” Bunch told me. “Offices closed, delivery standards cut, hours reduced and workers placed under unreasonable stress.”
A number of theories swirl around why Congress enacted that law. One posits that conservatives were gunning for two postal worker unions, the largest in the federal government.
Another, which Bunch subscribes to, is the law was designed to irreversibly cripple the once-profitable postal service. That would create justification for a takeover by private carriers.
A third theory holds it was sheer incompetence.
Between 2006 and 2015, the volume of first-class mail (by far the largest source of postal service revenue) has declined by 36 percent. This theory postulates that nobody foresaw how that revenue decline, when combined with the burdens imposed by the 2006 law, would negatively impact postal service operations.
Whichever theory you subscribe to, we’re living with the result now. Congress created this mess, and it can fix it.