A proposal advancing through Congress may change how millions get their mail: Rather than door-slot delivery, Americans may find themselves fetching the mail themselves at communal or curbside boxes. It’s the latest idea to cut costs in a union-heavy federal agency that leads a double life as a business—with staggering losses.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—with a Republican majority—approved the Postal Reform Act of 2013 this week. It would direct the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to move 30 million addresses to centralized delivery by 2022. Democrats largely voted against the measure, balking at the lack of “convenience.”
“I think it’s a lousy idea,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass. Other lawmakers said many urban areas have nowhere on city streets to put banks of separate postbox compartments for each address. But in reality, the most densely populated areas use space most efficiently. And many urban communities and townhouse complexes already use communal boxes expressly to avoid having people on their doorstep.
The new measure would enable waivers for people with a “physical hardship” who need door delivery because they would otherwise have difficulty getting their mail. And in a nod to the market, anyone who still wants delivery to their door could elect to pay an extra “delivery tax”—something Lynch scorns.
Though the Postal Reform Act is not the comprehensive overhaul most people agree is needed to solve the USPS’s financial problems, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., acknowledged it “provides an interim opportunity to achieve some significant cost savings.”
Converting to centralized or curbside delivery would save $2 billion annually, according to estimates: Current door delivery costs $380 annually per address compared with $240 for curbside or $170 for centralized service. Issa emphasized beyond cutting costs, the communal boxes would increase security: Rather than leaving packages on front porches where they could be subject to theft and bad weather, post officer workers could leave them in a locked location. If the bill clears Congress, only 1 percent of all addresses nationwide–many of them new homes–would undergo a delivery change annually.
The postal service reported a $1.9 billion loss in the first quarter of 2014 even as it looks to controversial strategies, like partnering with Staples stores, to stem losses. It has seen a 2.3 percent rise in operating revenue, increased employee productivity, and a successful venture with Amazon in the package business. But costs also increased and first-class mailing keeps fizzling as people use the Internet to pay bills or for communication. However, the red ink is mostly due to a 2006 law requiring the postal service to prefund its retiree health benefits.
Postmaster Patrick Donahoe has asked repeatedly for comprehensive legislation giving the agency more control over personnel and benefit costs and the flexibility to set prices. Though various proposals have been put forward—three in this Congress alone, all by Issa—Congress has not been able to agree on a bill with broad changes that would help trim fat and build market muscle.