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Playing Politics with the Post Office

By Alan Jilka
Opinion | November 12, 2011

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.


I work for the post office and yes, politics plays a major role. For example here in Kansas City we have 2 main processing facilities. One in Kansas, the other in Missouri. Why? Well the politicians on both sides work to keep jobs on their side of the state line even though they would have been better off closing the Missouri facility and moving that part of the process to the Kansas one where I work. As it is they waste alot of fuel and time sending mail back and forth between the 2 facilities.

As for the original article the author blames Republicans beut he should realize that the mail more and more is being processed by machines and thru automation which require fewer workers. It looks like they will be closing the Topeka processing facility taking 74 jobs there but will add about 53 jobs to the Kansas City operations.

The fact is many services can be done with fewer people. Take the telephone industry. At one time every little town and burb in the country had its own telephone exchange. In fact it was estimated that at one point 1 in 4 working women in the country were working as telephone operators. Each town also had its local telephone servicemen. Now of course there are fewer and fewer operators and serviceworkers especially with the move from landlines to cell phones.

On the loss of small towns: I dont know about Kansas but in South Dakota my grandfather could point to open pastures that he said at one point stood complete towns with schools, churches, businesses, etc. Up there they closed the last one-room school 2 years ago (down to only 8 kids).

One reason not addressed by the author as a reason for the decline in small towns is the rift between the younger and older populations. When I was growing up in rural Missouri our local district was hurting for money and desperately needed a levy increase. The local elderly population, who made up much of the town, fought it tooth and nail because they were on fixed incomes and the levy was only passed thru a concerted effort to bring every younger voter to the poles. In my parents rural South Dakota town the local older population resists tooth and nail every attempt to bring in new business or industry because it would make the town "noisy". So the younger people have no choice but to leave.

When the population at the local senior center outnumbers the local grade school, that town is going away.

Good article, Glen.

However, I have to agree with Brad, the Post Office is not responsible to keep a town viable. Schools close, grocery stores and other businesses close, whether there is a post office closure or not. The postal service is responsible for timely and dependable delivery of mail.

But, Brad the postal service is losing a big percent of their business because of the lack of service, as well as the quality of service. We used to get the Wichita paper delivered on the date it was published. The paper didn't change their printing schedule. The post office changed their routing schedule. I didn't hear anyone saying the routing schedule improved service for anything or anywhere, but I sure heard about it hurting service. What ever savings they thought they had from changing schedules most likely cost them far more business than they saved in cost of operations.

A first class letter mailed in Colby on Thurs. Oct. 6 was finally delivered to me on Tues. Oct. 11. I live just 15 miles from the Colby Post Office. Granted, Monday was a holiday, where did it go on Fri., Sat. & Sun. The letter was routed to Wichita, back to Salina, then back to Colby, then to Rexford where my rural carrier works out of. That was an extreme case, but we no longer get next day delivery of anything out of Colby. The mail used to come directly to Gem from Colby and the mail carrier worked out of Gem. They quit dropping all of Gem's mail off at Gem and sent it on over to Rexford and moved our rural carrier to Rexford. He brought all the mail back to Gem. It cost them more for the carrier to work out of Rexford. Where was their savings?

They are now talking about closing the Salina Regional Office and our mail will go to Denver. Denver is a black hole in the mail distribution efficiency. My sister lived in Denver and our first class mail might get del'd the next day or it might be 4 or 5 days. Email and Ma Bell started getting more and more of our business. Our Postmaster's husband had to get a lot of precription meds directly from his Doctor and the hospital in Denver. They couldn't depend upon timely delivery by USPS, so they used UPS and always got next day delivery. When their postmaters have to use UPS for dependable service, what do they expect other people to do?

Multiply all those changes and inefficiencies by the thousands of small towns and rural areas, nation wide, and you can begin to see why USPS is losing business.

People complain about the cost of postage. I remember three cent first class stamps and air mail costing more. The forty four cent stamp and no charge for air mail has not kept up with inflation of everything else. But, lack of service and dependability has cost the USPS more business than the increased cost of postage.

Ken, what do you think could save small towns?

What gets me about people in small towns is they will drive 50 miles away to a Walmart to save a dollar on laundry detergent rather than supporting a locally owned business in their small town. I know one small town of Bedford Iowa had a thriving downtown until a Walmart opened 35 miles (in Missouri) away and within a few years all the businesses had closed.

Also do you see the same divide I see between the young and old in rural communities?

Alan Jilka is correct in blaming the 2006 Republican lame duck congress in requiring the USPS to do something NOT REQUIRED of any other goverment entity. The effort by the conservative,corporate friendly Republicans is to privatize whatever they can, do away with any regulations that might endanger their profits, close regulatory bodies (like the EPA) or defund/cut staff so they can't regulate, or put a corporate crony in charge of the regulatory agency.

Two questions for Brad. One, are you a registered Republican? Two, are you a union member.

(I can see why a Kansas Citian might have little or no sympathy for small towns in rural Kansas. Corporate types have no sympathy for anything except greed.)

Brad, I don't know what will save small towns. There is no single magic formula.

I guess I'd have to say a change in social structure and attitudes would be a start. Social clubs and local service organizations can bring a friendly atmosphere to small communities that is hard to duplicate in larger cities and metropolitan areas. Individual pride in your neighborhood and responsibility for the welfare of neighbors can attract people to small towns. Schools don't have to be big to be good. Neither do religious organizations have to be big. Smaller schools and churches provide better opportunity for all ages to become involved in programs and activities. Locally owned banks and financial institutions can provide individual services that the bigger institutions can’t or won’t provide.

Economics plays a big role in the migration of young people to metropolitan areas. Job opportunities are limited in rural areas. Government programs and taxing structures favor the trend toward bigger farms and vertical expansion in agriculture as well as retail and manufacturing businesses.

Progressive tax schedules are not popular with the wealthier segment of society. But, a more even distribution of wealth encourages entrepreneurship. Family size (single families providing the bulk of labor and management) cannot compete with the huge national and multi-national corporations. Small grocery and hardware stores cannot compete with the monopolies such as Walmart, Kroger/Dillons, etc. The health care industry (private, corporate, government) discriminates against rural and small communities.

The divisive tactics of religious and political leaders are hurting people of all economic and social levels. But, those divisions are far more destructive in small communities. It leaves no group large enough or healthy enough to survive.

No, Alan is wrong because USPS is NOT a government entity like say Homeland Security is so it is not taxpayer supported. They became an independent business over 20 years ago. This forces the post office to actually make a profit and that is why they must close down smaller, unprofitable post offices and to consolidate processing facilities.

As to your personal questions - no I'm a registered independent and no, I'm not in a union.

I'd like to ask you - are you a registered democrat and are you in a union?

As for your claim of Kansas Citians not caring about rural Kansas, the fact I come on this board and ask questions about rural Kansas should show you I do care or am at least curious to what's going on out there. But otherwise to be honest, I have little contact with the rest of the state. I've been to Topeka a couple of times, Wichita maybe once, Emporia and Pittsburgh once, and only once to the Ks. State fair. I really should take the kids someday to the tourist sites like Castle Rocks, Abilene, Dodge City, or Garden City. We have stopped to see the big Monet in Goodland. We actually do more in Missouri.

Sorry, Brad. Mr. Jilka is correct. While you may argue that USPS is not a government entity because they have been self-supporting, no public OR private entity has been required by law to do what the lame duck REPUBLICAN congress required them to do.

Thanks for answering the question, from what you write my guess is that whiie you are registered as Independent, your sympathies are for Republican concervatism. I am not surprised you are non-union, but I'll wager you take the benefits without complaint just as if you had won them, rather than the union winning them for you.

As for my political affiliation, I am a registered Democrat, not a member of any union. However, I grew up in a family that experienced the difference a union job made to us. As a student of history, I know quite well the struggle of working people to organize to improve their lives and the lives of their families. I know also some part of the current "break the unions effort" comes from the conservative right and that the 2006 legislation had, at least in significant part, that goal.

The closure of 3700 small post offices, according to our Sen. Jerry Moran, would save USPS less than 1 percent, and that amount could be saved in other ways. Here, one alternative would be to share a postmaster/mistress with a nearby community and keep each post office open only half a day. Ending Saturday services is another real possiblity. Another real possibility is to raise the rate on for-profit junk mail.

I can accept that you come on the board because you are curious, not that you particularly care about small towns.

"The United States Postal Service, informally the US Post Office, the independent agency of the United States government, established in 1971 as an "independent establishment of the executive branch"

That would seem to make them a government agency. From what I can read, their primary purpose is to deliver a service, not to make a profit.

And that service was intended to apply equally to all citizens regardless of density of population or economic levels. Obviously transportation was a factor that prevented equal delivery time. But, todays transportation has closed that gap tremendously. However, as the management has started cutting out delivery and pick up points, we are getting back to delays that are creating inequities in the system.

Is it unreasonable to expect all taxpayers to help keep the system functioning? All taxpayers contribute to infrastructure to facilitate transportation. Some folks have no particular need for the interstate systems, at least not directly. For instance, I would benefit much more from local improvements than I do the interstate.

Alan -- I would say that another Thomas Frank book, The Wrecking Crew is the more appropriate reference.

By forcing a financial crisis in the Post Office -- the largest civilian federal employer -- this law creates the perception that "government can't do anything right" and "the government is the problem."

As you rightly point out, "No business in the private sector could be reasonably expected to survive under such onerous requirements." In fact, many businesses and State and local governments underfund their retirement accounts to make this quarter/year look better than it actually is.

"One in Kansas, the other in Missouri. Why? Well the politicians on both sides work to keep jobs on their side of the state line even though they would have been better off closing the Missouri facility and moving that part of the process to the Kansas one where I work. As it is they waste alot of fuel and time sending mail back and forth between the 2 facilities."

Brad, what you are saying makes sense. The question of which center closes becomes the political issue.

I would guess you can get from one center to the other in an hour or less. Now, take closing Colby's center and going to Salina. You have over 200 miles and 4 hrs involved. Close Salina and go to Denver and you have 450 miles and over 7 hrs. involved. You still have politics involved, but you have added transportation and time costs that are impossible to reconcile with the idea that it will improve service and lesson costs.

A big negative, also, is; Denver has been a 'black hole' from the very inception of the zip code and mail center distribution. First class mail has notoriously varied from next day delivery to 3 or 4 day delivery between Colby and Denver.

Maybe if the USPS management would address and correct that problem, their 1st class mail would not have dropped quite as much. Without question, the internet has changed communication systems. But, if mail service was not deteriorating, perhaps the internet would not have captured quite as much of the business.

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