(MintPress) -– For the second year in a row, the United States Postal Service is warning it cannot afford to pay its $5.5 billion retiree health fund bill, giving credence to legislators who call for swift cuts to the system — a defunding plan that would pose a threat to services vital to democracy, most notably newspapers, as the industry relies on the USPS for distribution.
Just days before the postal service announcement, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ohio) and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), drafted and sponsored a bill that would be devastating for the USPS and its users, leaving the 235-year-old government institution without a leg to stand on.
It’s an action that newspaper and democracy advocates claim will be detrimental for American democracy. While the budget crunch for the USPS is not contested, the importance of the postal service is, with those in the newspaper industry claiming it could dismantle an American tradition founded in the belief of government transparency.
“The Post Office was given a mission in the founding of our country — if we were going to have a democracy, citizens need to be informed, and the only way to really inform people in small communities is through their newspaper,” National Newspaper Association President Reed Anfinson told MintPress.
Those favoring the USPS claim that the private sector doesn’t have the infrastructure for an entire replacement, as companies like FedEx and UPS rely on the USPS to deliver to areas that generate mild mail delivery traffic.
The legislation, the threat to democracy
Ross and Issa’s Postal Reform Act of 2011 (HR 2309), introduced in March, would cut Saturday delivery, door-to-door delivery for nearly 90 percent of Americans and close thousands of local post offices and processing centers.
This would have lasting impacts on community newspapers, which rely on the USPS to deliver newspapers, many times, in rural areas. A lack of Saturday delivery and the closure of a nearby processing plant where mail is sorted for delivery could leave a hefty gap between the time a newspaper is printed and when it lands on a news consumer’s doorstep — a recipe for disaster for those paying for a service that could become less and less relevant without a proper mode of delivery.
Anfinson admits the USPS is in financial disarray, but he looks to other scenarios to deal with the issue. Anfinson favors SB 1789, a bill passed by the Senate in April that would allow the USPS with some form of relief, with the government returning at least $11 billion in payments made to the health pension fund, of which the USPS is required to pay $5.5 billion a year.
According to a PBS report, the financial situation is due to many factors, including the digital age. However, the extent of the crisis is a direct result of a 2006 Congressional mandate requiring the postal service — a non taxpayer funded agency — to pay the $5.5 billion a year, a requirement not placed on any other U.S. agency.
“Take the retirement fund out of the equation, and the postal service would have actually netted $1 billion in profits over this period,” the PBS report states.
The USPS is also banned by the U.S. government from raising postage at a rate higher than inflation, calling into question its ability to operate in a true free market.
Public watchdogs part of country’s vision
While SB 1789 isn’t perfect, Anfinson feels the eliminations included in HR 2309 would be devastating for the newspaper industries in rural communities across America, tasked with the duty of serving as government watchdogs for tens of thousands of local governments.
While this is a sentiment that could be brushed off by those who claim there are other modes of disseminating public information in small towns, Anfinson claims that just isn’t true. Newspapers, Anfinson says, are the fundamental source of information for people within communities. In many cases, the local reporter is the only person present at public meetings who holds the duty as a watchdog for people in the community.
“It takes a lot of time and expense. You could get a blogger or somebody that is not getting paid to go and cover these meetings, but who is going to do this, and who is going to challenge the public body when it violates the data practice or open meeting law,” Anfinson said.
Anfinson looks at the American political system as one that is built from the ground up. Often times, those now representing given states in Congress started at the local level, either through a school board, city council or county commission.
Anfinson claims they often learn through their local media what is responsible leadership and what is not, carrying on those lessons to the larger political arena.
“Most of our public officials are very good and honest people who work hard and hardly get paid at all,” Anfinson said, speaking of those who serve on local levels. “But when they’re under pressure, when things don’t look good and could be embarrassing or controversial, there’s a pressure to talk about this outside the public light — at the most crucial time.”
Without newspapers serving as watchdogs against such actions, Anfinson said Americans run the risk of even more distrust of government — what he considers to be a threat to democracy.
Could the private sector immediately replace USPS?
The argument in favor of ridding the Postal Service, looking to private mail carrier companies like FedEx and UPS, is troubled with the truth that companies like FedEx use the USPS to deliver small-weight packages on the ground to rural areas.
This isn’t a truth FedEx tries to hide. It’s actually listed on the company’s website as an assurance to customers the company can deliver to all corners of the U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska.
“When you need to ship low-weight packages to residential customers, consider efficient, economical FedEx SmartPost shopping service. By utilizing the U.S. Postal Service for final delivery, FedEx SmartPost reaches every U.S. address, including P.O. boxes and military APO, FPO and DPO destinations,” the FedEx website states.
That’s not to say they would attempt to find a way, however.
According to The Hill, a publication covering Washington D.C., citing lobbying disclosure records, FedEx spent $42 million in lobbying efforts in 2009 and 2010.