I-Team: Politics paralyzes postal board

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The U.S. Postal Service loses hundreds of millions of dollars per year, in part because of competition from email and social media. People simply don’t send letters anymore. 

Several ideas have surfaced to improve the postal service’s bottom line, but the board which oversees its operations is essentially paralyzed. The problem is political.

It turns out the man who now serves as the Chairman of the National Postal Service Board of Governors is a lifelong Las Vegan who says he is frustrated to see political squabbles interfere with mail delivery.   

Jim Bilbray is no stranger to political tussles. He was a Nevada regent, state senator, and served four terms in Congress, but when this lifelong Democrat was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service, he may have thought he was entering a non-political arena.

But instead, he says he found that hyper-partisan political battles are being waged.

“If we don’t get any new appointees by Dec. 6 of this year, I will be the only governor in the United States Postal System” explains Bilbray.   

He is currently one of only three appointed members for what should be a nine-person board. The other six spots are vacant because congress has been unable, or unwilling, to approve nominees who could then be appointed by the President.

This is not a trivial matter. The board sets policy for a gigantic operation.  It has a $67 billion in annual revenue, and more than 500,000 employees working in 30,000 post offices. 

The public gripes whenever the cost of a first class stamp increases, but for 49 cents, you can send a letter from Maine to Hawaii. Bilbray says that is an amazing bargain. 

“It is still the best buy in the world. The cheapest postage I could find is 99 cents in Switzerland and I understand they are raising their rates. But the fact is in Switzerland, it’s not that far to go across Switzerland to deliver mail.” 

The rise of email and social media has taken a huge chunk out of first class mail. People don’t write letters anymore.

But the postal service is still a vital communication link. Package deliveries are way up. Targeted advertising is a huge component of the business. The postal service lost almost $600 million in its most recent quarter, but that’s a big improvement from a year ago.

There are steps that could make the system solvent but the decimated board can’t act. It’s not even clear if it has a legal quorum. It could save $3.5 billion per year by ending Saturday delivery, but the mail carriers union opposed that, and so did Congressmen who represent rural districts.

A plan to close some of the least-busy post offices also caused an uproar.

“We went up to try to close some of those post offices and you might have thought we were trying to attack the town and destroy it,” remembers Bilbray.

One reason Congress can’t agree on nominees to the board is the insistence  by some members that the Postal Service be entirely privatized.

The reality, Bilbray says, is that for-profit companies might buy the most lucrative markets but would likely abandon mail service for much of the country. 

“They will buy Las Vegas. They will buy Chicago. They will buy New York. They will buy LA.  But they don’t want to deliver to Tonopah or Silver Peak or Gabbs, you know, those kind of areas because it loses them money.”

There are other limits imposed by Congress. The postal service is prohibited from owning its own airplanes. It is the only agency required to put away billions of dollars to cover benefits for future employees not even hired yet. And there is a cap on their ability to raise the cost of postage. Step one to improving things, though, is to at least have a full board of governors.

Bilbray’s two fellow board members have stayed on, even though their terms expired a year ago.  But they are done in December. Back in June, a senate committee voted to approve four new members to the board, but that’s as far as it went. The full Senate has not been allowed to vote on nominees.  

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