Postmaster General Stepping Down

Postmaster General John Potter has announced that he is stepping down. The Washington Post speculates on the reason for Potter’s departure:

It is not immediately clear why Potter decided to step down, though USPS staffers and others in the postal community – a wide fraternity including the shipping industry, labor unions and large retailers – signaled recently that he was likely to go after another record year of financial losses and failing to earn greater management flexibilities from Congress.

When Potter testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in March on the USPS’s desire to drop Saturday delivery, I noted that his comments indicated the need to privatize the U.S. Postal Service.

In his testimony, Potter stated:

If the Postal Service were provided with the flexibilities used by businesses in the marketplace to streamline their operations and reduce costs, we would become a more efficient and effective organization. Such a change would also allow us to more quickly adapt to meet the evolving needs, demands, and activities of our customers, now and in the future.

Of course, Congress has shown virtually no interest in giving the USPS, which is bleeding red ink, the greater flexibility it needs. This makes me wonder if Potter will reach the same conclusion that his predecessor, William Henderson, reached following his departure from the USPS.

Three short months after Henderson stepped down as postmaster general in June 2001, he penned an op-ed in the Washington Post that called for the USPS to be privatized.

Henderson wrote:

But for all the ways in which the Postal Service already resembles a private company, it lacks the advantages of any other corporation, such as being able to turn on a dime when it comes to rate changes, perhaps raising prices at times of high demand and lowering prices to entice customers during traditionally slow times, which for the Postal Service means summer. Today, a price change requires the permission of the Postal Rate Commission – a yearlong process.

And unlike a private company, the Postal Service has a universal service obligation, meaning it must deliver everywhere, six days a week, at a regularly scheduled time, making the delivery even for a single piece of mail, which is not cost-effective. And it means delivering in the Grand Canyon and in rural Alaska and in high-risk neighborhoods and lots of other places where delivery is not cost-effective.

The trade-off is that the Postal Service gets monopoly protection; no private company is allowed to compete with it head to head by carrying letter mail or using the mailbox. It should give up that protection for the greater benefits of privatization.

Henderson’s conclusion still rings true almost ten years later:

I can’t believe that 25 years from now the Postal Service will still be owned by the federal government. But the point is that, as with any government asset, this one needs to be maximized. And that means we need to free ourselves from the usual discussion about controlling costs or keeping rates stable or mailing more, all of which is simply a form of denial about the real issue. The model itself is not going to work for the long haul: It must be changed.

Unfortunately, Congress is still in denial. In commenting on Potter’s departure, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) offered the vacuous statement that his successor “must strengthen the Postal Service by cutting costs, enticing more customers and putting this vital institution on a sound financial footing.” Instead, Sen. Collins and her colleagues need to recognize that the USPS model “is not going to work for the long haul” so long as politicians ultimately remain in charge.