The US Post Office is the only independent agency specifically authorized by the US Constitution; Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7, “To establish Post Offices and post Roads…“. Not only is this the authorization for the Post Office, it is also the authority for the creation of US and Interstate Highways.
In 1787, travel among the new states was difficult, lengthy and hazardous. There was a dire need for communication and that was the impetus for the inclusion of this phrase in the Constitution.
Those conditions no longer exists and there are other, more modern alternatives. Fed Ex and UPS comes to mind.
Delivery of first-class mail is falling at a staggering rate. Facing insolvency, can the USPS reinvent itself like European services have—or will it implode?Phillip Herr looks like many of the men who toil deep within the federal government. He wears blue suits. He keeps his graying hair and mustache neatly trimmed. He has an inoffensively earnest manner. He also has heavy bags under his eyes, which testify to the long hours he spends scrutinizing federal spending for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency where he is Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues. As his title suggests, Herr devotes much of his time to highway programs. But for the past three years he has been diagnosing what ails the U.S. Postal Service.It’s a lonely calling. “Washington is full of Carnegie and Brookings Institutes with people who can tell you every option we have in Egypt or Pakistan,” laments Herr, who has a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. “Try and find someone who does that on the postal service. There aren’t many.”Yet Herr finds the USPS fascinating: ubiquitous, relied on, and headed off a cliff. Its trucks are everywhere; few give it a second thought. “It’s one of those things that the public just takes for granted,” he says. “The mailman shows up, drops off the mail, and that’s it.”He is struck by how many USPS executives started out as letter carriers or clerks. He finds them so consumed with delivering mail that they have been slow to grasp how swiftly the service’s financial condition is deteriorating. “We said, ‘What’s your 10-year plan?’ ” Herr recalls. “They didn’t have one.”Congress gave him until the end of 2011 to report on the USPS’s woes. But Herr and his team concluded that the postal service’s business model was so badly broken that collapse was imminent. Abandoning a long tradition of overdue reports, they felt they had to deliver theirs 18 months early in April 2010 to the various House and Senate committees and subcommittees that watch over the USPS. A year later, the situation is even grimmer. With the rise of e-mail and the decline of letters, mail volume is falling at a staggering rate, and the postal service’s survival plan isn’t reassuring. Elsewhere in the world, postal services are grappling with the same dilemma—only most of them, in humbling contrast, are thriving.The USPS is a wondrous American creation. Six days a week it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail—40 percent of the entire world’s volume. For the price of a 44¢ stamp, you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation’s borders. The service will carry it by pack mule to the Havasupai Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it to the wilds of Alaska. If your recipient can no longer be found, the USPS will return it at no extra charge. It may be the greatest bargain on earth.It takes an enormous organization to carry out such a mission. The USPS has 571,566 full-time workers, making it the country’s second-largest civilian employer after Wal-Mart Stores (WMT). It has 31,871 post offices, more than the combined domestic retail outlets of Wal-Mart, Starbucks (SBUX), and McDonald’s (MCD). Last year its revenues were $67 billion, and its expenses were even greater. Postal service executives proudly note that if it were a private company, it would be No. 29 on the Fortune 500.The problems of the USPS are just as big. It relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.During the real estate boom, a surge in junk mail papered over the unraveling of the postal service’s longtime business plan. Banks flooded mailboxes with subprime mortgage offers and credit-card come-ons. Then came the recession. Total mail volume plunged 20 percent from 2006 to 2010.Since 2007 the USPS has been unable to cover its annual budget, 80 percent of which goes to salaries and benefits. In contrast, 43 percent of FedEx’s (FDX) budget and 61 percent of United Parcel Service’s (UPS) pay go to employee-related expenses. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the postal service’s two primary rivals are more nimble. According to SJ Consulting Group, the USPS has more than a 15 percent share of the American express and ground-shipping market. FedEx has 32 percent, UPS 53 percent.The USPS has stayed afloat by borrowing $12 billion from the U.S. Treasury. This year it will reach its statutory debt limit. After that, insolvency looms.On Mar. 2, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe warned Congress that his agency would default on $5.5 billion of health-care costs set aside for its future retirees scheduled for payment on Sept. 30 unless the government comes to the rescue. “At the end of the year, we are out of cash,” Donahoe said. He noted that the unusual requirement was enacted five years ago by Congress before mail started to disappear.
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The difficult part would appear that it would require a constitutional change to dump the USPS. However, if you look again, the constitution says it must establish “Post Offices”, not the USPS. It could, by a legislative act, make UPS (since it’s already unionized) or FedEx (Horrors, a non-union shop) as Post Offices and allow them to carry First Class Mail. There are other options that could be used to replace part or all of the USPS while still providing for First Class Mail service.
Perhaps it is time we looked at some of these other alternatives instead of forking out billions of dollars that will be used to prop up a dysfunctional bureaucracy.