This first appeared in the Washington Post on Nov. 22, 2015
There is a financial crisis facing the U.S. Postal Service. In fiscal 2015, it lost $5.1 billion, even though its revenues were up. Yet, as dire as its financial picture may be, Congress has done little to fix the Postal Service.
So what would ordinary Americans say should be done, if they were in Congress' shoes? Would they do any better at finding bipartisan agreement on solutions?
In a new survey (pdf), a representative group of 2,256 registered voters -- called a "Citizen Cabinet" -- went through an online simulation in which they were briefed on the issues, presented with the various options Congress is considering, and then made recommendations on what they would do to fix the Postal Service.
And in fact they did indeed find bipartisan solutions - enough to get the Postal Service out of its current budget hole. The recurring theme was: Let the Postal Service act more like a business.
The survey, sponsored by Voice of the People and conducted by the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation, took the participants through an on-line process designed to simulate the debate in Congress. All the information given to participants was vetted in advance by congressional staffers from both parties, the postmaster general, the inspector general, the Letter Carriers Union and others.
The most significant recommendation, made by eight in ten participants, was to dramatically reduce the congressional requirement that the Postal Service fully prefund future retiree health benefits. This requirement is most responsible for the Postal Service's budget deficits.
Overwhelming majorities believed the argument that ordinary businesses do not achieve such a high prefunding level and the Postal Service should not have this unique requirement. At the same time, they also believed the argument that without prefunding the government might be forced to step in, putting the taxpayers on the hook.
In the end, however, 83 percent recommended lowering the prefunding requirement by at least 20 percent, and greatly extending the time allotted to meet that level.
Even larger majorities - nine in ten - recommended allowing the Postal Service to provide new non-postal products and services. Participants were informed that Postal Service is presently prohibited from offering such products and services. Participants also heard the argument in defense of this prohibition: that the Postal Service would have an unfair advantage relative to private companies offering non-postal products and services.
Nevertheless, large majorities endorsed allowing the Postal Service to provide such services as photocopying, Internet access, money transfers, and an email system.
Other bipartisan recommendations would also allow the Postal Service to act more like a business:
- 77 percent of participants favored allowing the Postal Service to lease its unused space in its warehouses (77 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats agreed with this).
- About two-thirds, including 72 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats, favored closing as many as 5 percent of those post offices that are losing money in a given year. However, only about 30 percent are ready to go as far as the Postal Service wants to go, which would be to close the 12 percent of all post offices that are not profitable.
- About two-thirds also support ending Saturday letter delivery (while still delivering packages and Priority Mail). This too is supported by majorities of both Republicans (75 percent) and Democrats (60 percent).
- About 60 percent favored permitting postal rates to rise faster than inflation, including 56 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats.
The Citizen Cabinet included samples of the nation as a whole and three states: Maryland, Oklahoma and Virginia. (The margin of error for the national panel was +/- 3.7 percent, while for the states it ranged from +/- 4.4 to 4.7 percent.) There was little difference between the specific states: Panelists from the very "red" state of Oklahoma came to the same basic conclusions as those from the very "blue" state of Maryland.
The founders of this country expressed confidence that if the government were to be guided by the common sense of the people, members of Congress would find their way through the shoals of factionalism and make better decisions.
In the case of the Postal Service in the 21st century, the founders appear to be right.
Steven Kull is director of the Program for Public Consultation, School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and president of Voice of the People, a nonpartisan organization that uses innovative survey methods and the Internet to help give the American people a more effective voice in government.