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The President, Politics, and Doing the Right Thing: A Postal Perspective

The following is a perspective by postal commentator Gene Del Polito, president of the Association of Postal Commerce. The views expressed are solely the author's.

It's getting tiresome. For the past two years, people within what is euphemistically called "the postal community" have been talking, almost endlessly, about the need to get Congress to recognize the screwed up realities surrounding the Postal Service's payments toward postal employee retirement benefits. And, for at least the past two years, there's been a lot of talk, and very little substantive action to rectify the mess.

Yes, some bills have been introduced. You probably, however, can have bills introduced for just about everything and anyone, including your dog, Spot. When you consider that the overwhelming proportion of bills that are introduced in each Congress never see enactment, it's kind of hard to get excited about any proposal that hasn't got legs.

The facts surrounding the Postal Service's fiscal mess regarding retirement-related payments and obligations have been laid out quite clearly in reviews conducted at the request of the Office of the Inspector General and the Postal Regulatory Commission. The facts are plain. The Postal Service has overpaid what it rightfully owes toward its employees' civil service retirement obligations, and its fiscal integrity is being undermined by requiring it to pre-fund its employees retirement health benefits (something no one else does or is required to do). It seems plain that merely crediting the pre-funding requirement (regardless of its novelty) from the excess already paid to cover CSRS would be more than sufficient and fair to rectify the matter.

Yet, despite this, Congress has done absolutely nothing to make all of this go away, and seems completely oblivious to the damage it's doing to the viability of the nation's still very much needed universal mail delivery system. As if Congress' inaction weren't bad enough, the White House seems all too willing to turn a blind eye to the whole affair in the vain hope that this postal-related problem will just go away (or at least remain quiescent) for the sake of the 2012 presidential and congressional election.

Politically, the American legislature is a house divided. Republicans control one chamber; Democrats control the other. As Abraham Lincoln once said (in a paraphrase of the Good Book): "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I don't know about standing, but it appears to create one whale of an impediment toward acting.

By September of last year, it was clear that the politics of 2011 were going to be complicated by the pendency of the 2012 elections. Everyone seemed intent on jockeying to see who could gain the upper hand in the battle for the electorate's mind and votes.

"Control the deficit." "Reduce federal spending." "Get rid of Obama care." (Heck, get rid of Obama.) The newly elected "tea party" candidates seemed mad as hell at everything governmental, and were resolved not to take anything that smacked of liberal politics or ideas any longer.

Heck, politically, I'm an agnostic. I lean neither to the left nor to the right. I suppose you can say I'm a part of what cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer once called the radical middle. Yes, I'm concerned about what politicians say. I'm even more concerned about what they do . . . or don't do. And right now, neither Congress nor the White House is saying or doing much of anything to end the needless crippling of a vital part of the nation's economic infrastructure and choking off its ability to contribute toward reinvigorating economic growth.

When you go to the Senate, you'll find a member or two who really gets what the CSRS/pre-funding mess is all about. Yet no one over there can effectively do anything, since it takes only one dissenting senator to bring any proposed resolution of matter to a screeching halt. While everyone's courteous, the doubtful voicing of the nation's postal predicament or the resolve of the postal bureaucracy to do its part are heard everywhere.

On the House side, opposition to any proposed CSRS/pre-funding resolution can be heard more clearly. Fixing this mess, many have proclaimed is nothing more than a government "bailout." All too often, that's about as deeply as some are willing to delve into the actual facts of the matter. Heck, on the House side, you even have to contend with the misbelief that the U.S. Postal Service is funded by tax revenues. "Educating" Congress about things postal has proven to be a truly
Sisyphean exercise. By the time they "get it" (if indeed they ever do), they're gone.

The fact is there is no "bailout." The money paid for CSRS and health retiree pre-funding has been paid by users of the postal system. These are postage payers dollars we're talking about, not general tax revenues. And postage payers rightly feel that they've paid way more than their fair share in righting the government's finances, and that government has gone way too far in holding the postal system hostage to cover over its own fiscal sins. As a J.G. Wentworth commercial might put it: "It's our money and we need it now!"

For the past two years, there's been an awful lot of time and money trying to "educate" Congress on the values and benefits of a self-supporting universal mail system. But why has so much time and money been spent on trying to educate the legislative branch, when it's the executive branch that should be more greatly concerned. As some tend to forget, the U.S. Postal Service is part of the Executive Branch. As the nation's chief executive, it's the President's primary responsibility, not Congress, to ensure the effective management and operation of the nation's postal system. Instead of yammering at Congress, time and money might be better spent jawboning the White House. And you would think the White House would be keenly aware of the politics of doing or not doing what needs to be done to set straight the CSRS overfunding and health retiree pre-funding situation.

The politics are simple. Republicans don't want to do anything to make a Democrat president look good in advance of the next presidential election. Consequently, there's really nothing in it for congressional Republicans (particularly in the House) to work assiduously for a straightforward and rational solution. It's much too easy to scream "bail out" and let the whole thing fester. If anytime before the election the Postal Service's finances become even more perilous, the situation can be employed as a political tool to undermine confidence in the White House incumbent and call even more loudly for political change. Indeed, the perilousness of postal finances may reach a more critical political change when (and if) the Postal Service decides it does not have enough money to make good on its 2011 pre-funding obligation. House Republicans would be right when political fingers are pointed at the White House. This is after all, an, Executive Branch agency we're talking about, and it is up to the chief of the Executive Branch to act with or without Congress' participation.

The White House, on the other hand, should be eager to put this issue behind it, or so you would think. The two most significantly affected constituencies in this dilemma are postal employees and businesses who use mail for communication and commerce. The last I checked, the White House was held by a Democrat. And, the last I checked, postal employees and the organizations through which they are represented lean more toward the Democrats than the other side. While businesses are well known to frequent one side of the political aisle or another, there's no doubt in my mind that their gratitude (if not their votes) most definitely would go to whomever could make this mess go away. Political divides may be the cause of a congressional stand-still, but only ignorance or obstinance can explain any failure by the White House.

Of course, underlying this whole issue is a very dirty little political secret. Of all of the Executive Branch's agencies only the Postal Service has fully-funded its CSRS obligation or pre-funded its employees' retirement health benefits. Neither the military nor the rest of the civil service have come anywhere near doing what the Postal Service has been required to do. The "dirty little secret" lies in the fact that government is using the Postal Service's overpayment to cover up the underfunding by all other parts of the government. In other words, they've discovered a fiscal mother lode in postage payers' pockets and they're unwilling to kick their addiction to raiding the postal fisc.

Now, you would think that the anti-government types on the other side of aisle might be savvy about this affair. I doubt that they are. If they were, you'd be expecting Republican calls for all federal agencies to fully fund their retirement-related obligations and leave postage payers alone. What to reduce the size of government? Make them fully fund their own CSRS obligations, the money for which can only come from making federal payrolls smaller.

In short, smart politics (no matter how you choose to view things) call for ending the raid on postage payers, and require every part of government to pony up.


Be sure to check out "Why Congress Should Address Quickly the Retirement Funding Issues Affecting the Nation's Postal System."





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