SALINA, Kan. - If anyone doubted Thomas Frank's thesis in his book What's the Matter with Kansas? he or she need look no further than the current drama playing out with the U.S. Post Office.
For those who haven't read Frank's best seller, he made the case that Kansans frequently vote for their politicians based on social issues, particularly abortion, and the leaders they elect, once in office, tend to vote against the economic interests of the very constituents they represent.
As most know by now the U.S. Postal Service is in financial trouble. But the reasons for their problems are quite different than popular perception. Yes, according to Regional Post Office spokesman Brian Sperry based in Denver, postal volume has dropped twenty-two percent in the past five years, including a twenty-six percent drop in all-important First-Class mail. In response the Post Office has taken numerous measures including the streamlining of processing and closing of many facilities. A new round of closings is under consideration.
But there's a bigger boogeyman in the room. It's Congress. In 2006 Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA). In this bill the Postal Service was given ten years, or until 2016, to pre-fund seventy-five years worth of retiree health benefits. No other government agency or business is required to do this. According to Sperry this payment amounts to approximately $5.5 Billion annually.
No business in the private sector could be reasonably expected to survive under such onerous requirements. Although no one appears willing to say so there clearly was a political agenda behind the passage of PAEA. It would appear that many in Congress want to entirely privatize the Post Office.
Many make the case that, given the burdensome regulations included in PAEA the Postal Service has been one of the best-manages entities around in the past decade. Other federal requirements have resulted in over-payments of billions into the federal civil service pension funds which have not been refunded. Ralph Nadar, for one, argues in a recent letter to Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), that without such federal regulation the Post Office would actually be in the black. He uses official government statistics to make a compelling case.
Clearly the Postal Service must change and adapt with the times. But they should also be treated fairly by the Feds and not be used as a pawn to serve a political agenda. Legislation has been introduced in Congress, HR 1351, which will take steps to remove these onerous rules. Only one of Kansas' four congressional representatives, Lynn Jenkins, has signed on as a co-sponsor.
A large number of Kansas towns are on lists circulating for possible post office closures. Many of them are in the First Congressional District. We've seen too many western Kansas towns lose their livelihood in recent decades. Usually the process involves the loss of a school, grocery store, and finally, a post office. Some of these are the result of natural economic forces. But what's happening to the post office is being pushed by other ideological forces.
Given the current, largely artificial crisis one would think that Congressman Huelskamp would be fighting to save jobs in his district. Yet he and his office are strangely silent.
Huelskamp has unquestioned credentials on conservative social issues. Some say he concerned himself with little else while in the Kansas Legislature. He also exhibits extreme political hostility towards most endeavors of the federal government. He is the type of ideologue who would jump at the chance to privatize anything whose function could be taken off the government's hands.
The matter of whether the measure is good for the constituents of his ever-expanding congressional district is trumped by ideology. He fits neatly into the thesis of Thomas Frank.