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Despite deficits, Postmaster General an 'eternal optimist'

In a visit to my office Tuesday, Patrick Donahoe said he sees his operation being debt-free by 2017 or ’18, with a completely new fleet and an updated “sorting infrastructure.”
In a visit to my office Tuesday, Patrick Donahoe said he sees his operation being debt-free by 2017 or ’18, with a completely new fleet and an updated “sorting infrastructure.”
Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

I can think of only a few jobs in this world I wouldn’t want under any circumstances. Doing public relations for the tobacco industry is one. Being Kim Jong-Un’s barber? No thanks, although whoever does it now could use some help.

And while I love health care workers, blood makes me squeamish.

But high on the list also is the job of United States Postmaster General. There is a lot of bleeding involved with that one, too.

Last month, the Postal Service announced it ended the June 30 quarter with a $2 billion net loss. That has become so commonplace it hardly generates a news alert on my smartphone.

But the fiscal blood-letting isn’t why I wouldn’t want the job. It’s the way any reasonable, common sense solution has to go through Congress.

And yet the current postmaster general, Patrick Donahoe, is one of the more optimistic people I have met in awhile. In fact, he’s about the only optimistic person I’ve encountered on the subject of the postal service.

In a visit to my office Tuesday, he said he sees his operation being debt-free by 2017 or ’18, with a completely new fleet and an updated “sorting infrastructure.”

“I’m the eternal optimist, believe me,” he said.

As the late author Wilferd Peterson said, "Big thinking precedes great achievement." It’s just that this sort of big thinking involves Congress, which casts doubt on another maxim: nothing’s impossible.

And yet there are plenty of things the Postal Service can do without Congress, such as deliver your groceries.

Yes, I said groceries. Right now, in San Francisco, you can get fresh meat, produce or cases of soft drinks delivered to your home in a postal service truck between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m.

“You’d be surprised who gets groceries from us,” Donahoe said. It’s not just shut-ins and the elderly. “There are a lot of people who do daily shopping through the Internet, and they’re getting (groceries) delivered to their house on a daily basis.”

He hopes that program soon will expand into other markets.

Also, the postal service is experimenting with something called “forward warehousing.” You keep a product on hand at the postal service, and customers can get same-day delivery.

Then there is Sunday parcel delivery. In some markets, the postal service will deliver packages to your house seven days a week.

These are out-of-the-box ideas for a quasi-public company that has to compete against nimble private companies while also dealing with politicians.

Unfortunately, the really big things Donahoe wants to do require head-on collisions with those politicians, which brings us to the elimination of Saturday mail delivery.

The last time this was tried, in 1957, Amazon was still something that conjured images of a jungle, which may explain why Congress went ape and refused to allow it. Now, Donahoe said, most Americans wouldn’t care, but unions worry about losing jobs, which makes the plan just as hard to get past the politicians.

Donahoe says the service has cut about 200,000 jobs since 2006 without having to lay off anyone, and he assures me he can keep doing so through attrition. Yet, Congress keeps attaching a rider to a yearly appropriations bill forbidding the postal service from delivering less than six days a week without its permission.

But the biggest challenge the postal service faces is the congressional mandate to pre-fund its retiree health benefits for 75 years. That is a $5.7 billion a year liability. Donahoe’s solution to that is to let all postal service retirees obtain full Medicare benefits at age 65, which they can’t do under current rules.

This would save the service billions, even if it also costs the Medicare program billions, which is another subject for another day.

Donahoe also would like the freedom to set postal rates freely, making them accountable to the market, rather than tying them to inflation.

But even the eternal optimist sounds an alarm about what might happen if Congress continues to do nothing. “The problem is that each year you dilly-dally and don’t act, it becomes more of a problem. You end up going from a hopeful solution to a desperate solution.”

Given everything else I see happening in Washington, I admire Donahoe’s optimism.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, jayevensen.com.