ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Yesterday, in Washington, an appeal from the Postmaster General of the United States.
PATRICK DONAHOE: We're in a deep financial crisis today because we have a business model that is tied to the past. We are expected to operate like a business but do not have the flexibility to do so.
SIEGEL: At the National Press Club, Patrick Donahoe rejected the postal reform bills that have passed committees of the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic Senate.
DONAHOE: Both bills have elements that delay tough decisions and impose greater constraints on our business model.
SIEGEL: And Donahoe said speed is of the essence.
Here's the race that the postal service is losing. We now send messages and pay bills online. First class mail volume is falling at a rate of seven percent a year. Last fiscal year, the postal service spent $70 billion and took in 65 billion - and most of its budget is payroll. There are 557,000 postal workers. In the private sector, only Wal-Mart employs more.
In this segment of the program, a Washington evergreen story: Whither the Post Office? In a moment, we'll hear about proposed changes. And we'll also hear from a young man who is documenting endangered post offices in the hope of saving them.
First though, a moment of living history, to savor what a post office used to be.
The palatial lobby of the National Postal Museum, formerly the Washington, D.C. Post Office, it was built between 1911 and 1914. It was - like other big city post offices - built next to the equally majestic train station. The corridor of what feels like a temple of a forgotten deity, has been restored by architect Glen Hopkins.
GLEN HOPKINS: The ceiling is a copper-plaster ceiling. Below that, the latticework, grillwork is actually sgagliello(ph), which is a plaster-type material but it's actually made with marble dust. It has the eight large chandeliers on either side. There's 26 bays with marble-clad columns and Ionic capitals.
SIEGEL: No one expects the U.S. Postal Service to be restored to the grandeur it knew a hundred years ago. Members of Congress who oversee the postal service speak of reforming it and rescuing it. Delaware Democratic Senator Tom Carper supports a bipartisan Senate bill. It would help the postal service cut its workforce.
SENATOR TOM CARPER: They have more employees than they need. They have more post offices than they need. And they have more processing centers than they need. And what the leadership of the postal service, the board of governors, would like to do is do what the auto industry did and not necessarily fire people, not lay people off, but incentivize them to retire.
SIEGEL: And the Senate bill says give the postal service back $7 billion to pay for buy outs. This is the most disputed part of the postal service's financial dilemma. Past laws forced the service to pre-pay so much of its obligations to retirees that it has overpaid the treasury by at least $7 billion.
Critics of the bill - and they include the postmaster general and the postal unions - say the postal service has overpaid by much more than that. Give them a fair refund, they say, and they're in the black.
In the House, Republican Congressman Darryl Issa of California has a bill that passed his committee. It takes a much more robust view of incentivizing reductions in the workforce. It would create an Emergency Financial Control Board that could mandate layoffs, not just encourage retirements.
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The post office cannot through attrition get right-sized for a generation. And that's probably $100 billion of taxpayer money wasted, when in fact we need to act more like a business and do what's right for retirees but do it now, not later.
SIEGEL: For Postmaster General Donahoe, these two bills both deliver a couple of years of profitability, but they don't address the big picture at the post office.
DONAHOE: We need provisions in the final legislation that provide us with the speed to reduce our cost by $20 billion by 2015.
SIEGEL: That would be a remarkable u-turn for an institution that grew bigger and bigger, as the country grew bigger and bigger. The National Postal Museum celebrates the milestones in that story of steady expansion.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In 1858 came a new way to mail letters, the letterbox. Then in 1863, in 49 northern cities, another change: city free delivery.
SIEGEL: Soon, the post office may be marking one such milestone in retreat: the end of Saturday delivery. The postal service says only a fifth of Americans value six-day a week service. The Senate bill says: Wait at least two years before you cut it; there are seniors who get their meds in the mail on Saturday. The House Bill requires a waiting period of just six months.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe says: Let me do it now.
DONAHOE: If we're unable to implement the five-day delivery schedule now, we will needlessly carry a $3 billion operating cost. Multiply that by several years, and you got a pretty big number.
SIEGEL: There's also talk of improving efficiencies. How do we get mail delivered? And where's the post office?
(SOUNDBITE OF A CART)
SIEGEL: We caught up with letter carrier Linda Moore when she was about one hour into her rounds in downtown Washington, wheeling a cart from one building to the next.
How many years have you been doing this?
LINDA MOORE: Thirty-three.
SIEGEL: Thirty-three years.
SIEGEL: How many more years will you be doing this?
MOORE: I'm not sure. I'm going to be making a left, right here.
SIEGEL: It was hard keeping up with Moore. She does this at a very fast walk, for over six hours.
One idea would increase the number of homes letter carries reach on their rounds by expanding curbside delivery.
Again, Congressman Darrell Issa.
ISSA: A 109 million homes walk out of their door to get their mail, while 37 million get it delivered inside their door. We believe that most of those 37 million homes should have a safe, secure box, either at the curb or very close by, and that that saves an additional $5 billion.
SIEGEL: Those extra steps saved would mean fewer letter carriers.
Of course, if you felt you were disadvantaged by the shift to curbside delivery, you could complain, at a community meeting or directly to your member of Congress. And those complaints work against another big efficiency the postmaster wants to undertake: The closure of thousands of post offices around the country. Here's what he said yesterday.
DONAHOE: Most retail companies would close retail stores that have failed to turn a profit. Roughly 25,000 out of our 32,000 post offices operate at a loss.
SIEGEL: Offer more postal services in supermarkets, he says. Consolidate collection facilities, too. But for every proposed closure, there could be a member of Congress protesting the loss of service.
Also, postal workers and their unions don't buy the argument that there are too many of them, even if supporters of the Republican House bill and the bi-partisan Senate bill say there are.
FREDRIC ROLANDO: Their agenda seems to be to dismantle the postal service. And if that's your goal, then obviously you have too many employees.
SIEGEL: Fredric Rolando is president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, one of the four postal unions.
ROLANDO: We're not the auto industry. We're not competing with Japanese stamps. In fact, we deliver 40 percent of the world's mail, we're the cheapest mail system in the world. I think it's really just a matter of restructuring what we need to do to replace the revenue. I don't see us on par with the auto industry at all.
SIEGEL: The unions observe that the post office does very well delivering parcels the last mile for the private companies that used to be its great rivals: UPS and FEDEX. They are now big post office customers. And they actually have a stake in continued Saturday delivery, which underscores a fundamental problem for the postal service. It's supposed to act like a business. But it's not going door to door all over the country because it's a business. It does that because it is the postal service.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.