As a private agency, the Postal Service isn't government-run or taxpayer-funded. Yet it can hardly make a move without federal approval. Postal rates are capped by law, and the agency is unique among federal bureaucracies in having to pay billions of dollars into a federal retiree-benefits fund.
Even though the price of first-class stamps went up a couple of pennies last month, and while the agency has been able to tap a massive line of credit from the Treasury Department, the Postal Service has been waiting too long for Congress to authorize a range of reforms that might assure that the mail keeps getting through.
While it's been waiting, the Postal Service's losses have mounted, and its credit line has dried up. In this climate, a desperate Donahoe is now asserting that he can go ahead with ending Saturday letter deliveries because Congress hasn't formally prohibited the move through the normal budget process.
It's not quite the old Washington Monument strategy - in which an agency, such as the National Park Service, threatens to end popular services first - but the postmaster has thrown down a gauntlet in a No. 10 envelope. Dropping one of its six delivery days would save the Postal Service only $2 billion a year - real money in some quarters, sure, but it would not prevent insolvency. Now Donahoe at least has the nation's attention, though, and that's a good thing. Maybe even Congress will take notice and get back to work on plans to free the Postal Service to compete and survive.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) took the lead on a sensible package of reforms that would help the Postal Service slim down and modernize. At the same time, it would stave off any decision on weekend mail service, which is prized by small businesses, rural communities, the elderly, and others. Carper's package could form the basis for an agreement with the Republican-led House, where lawmakers have been pushing harsher medicine for the Postal Service, its sizable workforce, and the communities served by small post offices.
Internet or not, the U.S. mail should remain an important and healthy piece of national infrastructure. So if the postmaster proves to have forced some overdue political decision-making about the future of his agency, he will have delivered a message that's crucial to the country's future.