By Robert G. Taub
May 20, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
The Postal Regulatory Commission commends the Government Accountability Office for its excellent evaluation of the fundamental postal public policy issues confronting our nation in its latest report entitled U.S. Postal Service: Congressional Action to Enable a Sustainable Business Model is Essential (GAO-20-385). The report’s recommendations warrant immediate attention by Congress.
In particular, the GAO’s first matter for congressional consideration – “Congress should consider reassessing and determining the level of universal postal service the nation requires” – is long overdue and must be addressed as quickly as possible.
Given the Postal Service’s severe and worsening financial situation – as was the case even before the impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis – we as a nation must provide a clear and specific definition of universal service required to meet our fellow citizens’ postal needs, and ensure that obligation can be funded. The commission has recommended this to Congress on many occasions, including in its most recent statutorily mandated report of legislative recommendations sent to Congress and the president. (See: Section 701 Report)
It is not just the GAO and the commission making this recommendation. A growing drumbeat of other entities have made similar calls to better define universal service, including the Postal Service’s independent inspector general, the Task Force on the United States Postal System led by the secretary of the Treasury, and the Postal Service itself.
Because of statutory mandates in the Postal Accountability & Enhancement Act of 2006, the commission has extensive experience evaluating the Postal Service’s universal service obligation. The law required the commission to provide a comprehensive report on universal service and the postal monopolies to the president and Congress. (See: Report on Universal Postal Service and the Postal Monopoly) The commission identified seven specific attributes that comprise universal service, but noted that unlike most other industrialized nations, the United States has rarely established specific standards of minimally acceptable service for its citizens. In addition, in its required Annual Report to the President and Congress, the commission estimates the annual cost to the Postal Service of providing universal service. The current estimate is more than $5.2 billion and continues to grow. (See: Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report to the President and Congress)
Given the commission’s independence and statutory expertise in this area, Congress could task the commission to define and update by regulation the universal service definition. Congress used a similar approach in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when it mandated that the Federal Communications Commission – an independent regulatory agency like the commission – define and update universal service for telecommunications under specific criteria that Congress included in the law. A similar congressional mandate that the commission define the postal system’s universal service obligations would ensure an objective process for this important task, with full transparency and an opportunity for robust input by the public. The commission has a half-century record of conducting its work in this open and accessible way – ever since Congress and President Richard Nixon created the expert agency in August 1970.
Basic best practices call for any organization, public or private, as a first order of business to develop a clear, concise mission statement. The commission’s mission is to ensure transparency and accountability of the Postal Service and foster a vital and efficient universal mail system. The universal service obligation is the basic mission statement for the Postal Service as a government entity. Defining the universal service obligation is a task that nearly every other industrialized nation on the planet accomplished years if not decades ago, with the same commitment, as we would demand, to guarantee their citizens a specific level of universal postal service. We are the world’s laggards in this regard.
As confirmed by the GAO’s evaluation, clarity of mission for our national treasure of the Postal Service should be job one. Under current law, the universal service obligation is largely undefined, and therefore Congress must consider how best to reassess and determine the level of universal postal service the nation requires. The Postal Service is at the core of the $1.6 trillion U.S. mailing industry that employs more than 7.3 million people. The ongoing pandemic is exacerbating the Postal Service’s long-standing financial problems, and the GAO’s timely report requires immediate attention by Congress. Our nation’s Postal Service, its more than 633,000 employees, and the 329 million Americans who depend on it expect and deserve no less.
There are no easy answers, but answer, we must. The commission stands ready to work with Congress in its search for solutions for a vital institution that has continued to connect and serve the American people for nearly 245 years.
Robert G. Taub is chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission.
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