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Guest editorial: Emphasize the 'service' in USPS

It appears draconian cuts in the functions of the U.S. Postal Service have been avoided, for now. The Senate passed by a wide margin bipartisan amendments and a reform bill that will protect many rural post offices and processing centers from being shuttered. Many of them that had been targeted are in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

But even as rural communities get a reprieve from losing their post offices, solutions to structural problems plaguing USPS are only delayed by the legislation, not solved. The flawed "business" model that was imposed on the post office years ago has proved to be an imperfect fit on a government agency that is supposed to emphasize service.

Instead, the business/government hybrid is an inflexible, bureaucratic behemoth that is expected to operate like a private for-profit business. However, the USPS mandate - as enshrined in history by the nation's first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin - guarantees that "postal service" and "profit" have been and will be unharmonious concepts.

Not so, say defenders of the business model. They point to private delivery services, such as UPS and Federal Express that make a buck doing what USPS does. Take a closer look.

USPS is obligated to take any and all mail and packages and extend delivery to every location in the nation, no matter how remote or how expensive it is to get there. Private outfits cherry-pick both what they deliver and where they operate. So the expectation that a business-run USPS should be profitable because private carriers are profitable is a false comparison.

The post office as originally - and properly - designed was established as a government agency to provide mail service everywhere in the country. If it made money in its early history, fine. If changing economies and technologies, and union abuses and management failures, eroded the USPS revenue stream, those circumstances should not be used to shut down vital elements of the service. Demand efficiencies within the context of universal service. Rewrite labor contracts. Streamline management. But don't reduce the post office to a half-baked quasi-private faux business.

USPS should be viewed in the same context of say, the Department of Defense or the Department of the Interior, federal agencies with mandates that do not require generating profits before they respectively protect the country and manage national parks. Like defense and national parks, delivering the mail should be a routine cost of government - the way Franklin envisioned it.

This editorial represents the opinion of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's management and Forum's Editorial Board.