Preston Tisch, a near billionaire, wanted to take some time off from wealth accumulation to perform some public service. In mid-1986 he became the Postmaster General and a few days ago he announced his resignation to return to the family business in New York.
Before Mr. Tisch leaves Washington, however, he will have done something, according to Postal Service Historian, Rita Moroney, no predecessor going back 200 years has done. He will have shut the Post Offices in this country for one afternoon a week and stopped mail sorting on Sunday.
The occasion for this latest but unprecedented deterioration in postal service is, of course, the absence of money. Somewhere in the murky, frantic budget process last month between the White House and Congress, Tisch was told that the Postal Service would
have to shoulder $430 million in employee retirement and health costs for fiscal years 1988 and 1989. Until now these costs were absorbed by the U.S. Treasury.
To his credit, Tisch spent many hours on Capitol Hill lobbying against these impositions. However, without any organized residential first class mailers association out there in the country, Tisch had neither the visibility nor the political muscle to prevail. When I proposed last year to Tisch a simple way to facilitate the creation of such an independent, self-funded citizen group — by placing a membership solicitation in each residential mailbox once a year — he rejected it
outright. He, he said, represents these Americans.
Well, Tisch couldn’t and now, given the way he is closing the Post Offices several hours per week, he is muffing the response to this dollar gap in a manner that suggests little understanding of the historic service principle behind the Postal Service.
He can avoid backing up the mail, by keeping Sunday sorting, and he can keep Wednesday afternoon open for millions of postal customers by implementing two alternative courses of action.
First, twenty to thirty percent of the nightshift workers processing mail can be moved to daytime shift work. This would save the ten percent nighttime differential. Second, he could and should reduce the payment to the presort companies who now receive 4 cents per piece for first class five digit presorting (and the 4.5 cents for nine digit presort discount). In view of its new mail sorting technology, such as multiline readers, the Postal Service is losing nearly 2.5 cents a piece.
The proper presort mail discount is the cost the Postal Service avoids by not having to sort the mail itself. New technology makes the 4 cents discount a partial subsidy to these companies.
These two savings would amount to over $400 million per year which would keep the doors open.
During the Reagan years, the principle of a government service has eroded. For example, Mr. Reagan makes taxpayers pay twice for government reports — first as a taxpayer and second as a requester of the highly priced materials. This infection has spread to the Postal Service which, on a number of recent occasions, flirted with ideas of no Saturday delivery of mail and closing thousands of rural post offices, just as it refuses to deliver the mail right to homes in new housing projects. Mail boxes are bunched at the end of the block.
In a Reagan government, replete with making you, the taxpayer, subsidize the few (sugar, tobacco, maritime and many other industries in the tens of billions), the White House opposes a minor subsidy to maintain Postal Service. What Mr. Reagan and his associates do favor, though, is another increase in first class postal rates. What took 10 cents to mail a letter first class in 1974 will cost 25 cents this Spring, unless the Postal Rate Commission can delay the rise by rejecting it.
Mr. Tisch leaves with his resume signifying a short stretch of public service, as he would describe his tenure. Others, waiting on their mail or waiting in line, may call his performance by other names. And a few, determined citizens, may collar their Congressional representatives and ask them why, in the middle of their dismal nest of inequities on Capitol Hill, they couldn’t even keep the Post Office open as it has been since the days of Benjamin Franklin.