If I tell you, "The check's in the mail" you probably won't look
for it any time soon-if at all. But if I tell you I've sent the
check via FedEx, you'll probably plan a trip to the bank.
We know we can count on private services such as FedEx and United
Parcel Service to deliver on time. If they didn't, they'd go out of
business. And we also know-many of us from bitter experience-that
we always can't count on the post office.
That's because the post office is a government-protected monopoly;
19th century laws make it illegal for anyone else to deliver
letters. It's also exempt from state and federal taxes and free
from most government regulations. That combination is a recipe for
A recent report from the President's Commission on the United
States Postal Service recognized these problems and recommends
creating a Postal Regulatory Board to supervise the post office.
This would be a welcome step, but we shouldn't stop there. The
overall goal is to make the post office more efficient and
user-friendly. That's why it's time to break the post office's
monopoly and privatize the delivery of mail.
Right now, there's no competition in the letter-delivery business.
Almost all letters must be sent through the post office, unless the
letter is "extremely urgent." The post office even gets to set the
minimum price its private competitors can charge: A letter must
cost at least $3 or twice the applicable first-class rate to
qualify as urgent.
But if Congress changes the law, private companies could go head to
head with the post office. Competition would bring down prices, and
the post office would have to become more responsive to customers
if it wanted to survive.
It also would have to stop wasting money.
Consider the case of Karla W. Corcoran. She resigned as inspector
general of the U.S. Postal Service in August, after a nine-month
congressional investigation showed that she had abused her
authority and wasted millions of dollars. Sen. Charles Grassley,
R-Iowa, called Corcoran's resignation "a step in the right
direction" and added, "someone must be making sure that taxpayers'
money is invested wisely."
That's true, but with the post office, strict oversight is almost
impossible. It has long relied on a unique "postal year format"
that makes it impossible to compare the postal service's
performance from one year to the next. As my Heritage colleague
James Gattuso noted recently, "One might think that this system was
designed to prevent measurement, analysis and comparisons of postal
operations over time."
That may be one reason the postal service so regularly
miscalculates its fiscal needs. For example, an estimated $1.35
billion deficit for fiscal year 2002 grew to $4.5 billion only six
months later. But the final 2002 deficit was "only" $676
No company with such wildly fluctuating forecasts would last long
on the free market. Remember the Enron scandal? The company
collapsed within weeks because of shady bookkeeping. Private
delivery services already are subject to the same sort of market
accountability that Enron was. We should start holding the post
office to those same strict standards.
There are some things that can be done only by the government.
Delivering mail is not one of those things.
Private carriers are more efficient, more dependable and could do
the same job for less money, if we'll let them. That's why it's
time for the taxpayers to deliver a message to Congress about the
post office: Privatize-and start competing.
Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation.