These are tough times. The economy has fallen off the ledge. The stock market has plummeted. Consumers are tightening their fists. And, to make matters worse, the Postal Service is facing the worst crisis it has ever faced since its founding by the new American republic. There have been staffing freezes, pay freezes, and employees have been told that even harder changes may still lie ahead. So, as humans often do when they get such unpleasant news, the search is on for someone to blame.

    Shortly after the presidential inauguration, the target of blame was the Bush Administration. Now with only two months under its belt, the target has shifted to the Obama Administration. Within postal circles, the one walking around with a target on his back is the person who is called Postmaster General.

    Now, there may be a number of criticisms that could rightly be laid at the Postal Service's (or even the PMG's) feet. But one of them most definitely is not the Postmaster General's compensation. First of all, why blame the PMG? He doesn't set his own salary. He doesn't authorize any additional compensation. All he does is attend to the sorry task of making this nation's postal system work in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and amidst a technological revolution that has changed the way we as a nation communicate and do business.

    Who does set the PMG's pay? In large part, the PMG's pay is set by statute. By law, he is entitled to be paid at a rate that can be as much as 120% of the pay given to the Vice President of the United States. So, if the VP receives $215,000, the PMG can receive $236,575. Sound like a lot? Well it isn't.

    Elsewhere around the world, chief postal executives are earning as much as a million dollars or more. Heck, in the United Kingdom, where Royal Mail is undergoing stresses of its own, the Mail's chief executive received a bonus of well over a million pounds in addition to the already hefty sum he's paid as salary.

    Back to our PMG. That $236,575, by the way, is the only real money the PMG gets in his paycheck every two weeks. Of course, you'd never know it judging by the furor that has been stirred in the national press.

    Sure, the PMG "gets" more. But most of what he "gets" is deferred until he either leaves the Postal Service or leaves federal service. For instance, the Board of Governors recently awarded the incumbent a performance-base incentive of $135,041. With the increase in his base pay, the incumbent also is entitled to an increase in his retirement benefit. Since he is still under the Civil Service Retirement System, this amounts to $381,496. Neither of these bennies, by the way, can be paid until he leaves the Postal Service or government service. In other words, he's not walking around with anymore in his pocket that the statutorily based pay of $236,575.

    His international counterparts, by the way, suffer no such constraints. A million in pay, a million in bonuses all are amounts they are entitled to take immediately and spend in any way they wish.

    But surely, critics say, he shouldn't be entitled even to these forms of compensation given his call for salary and hiring freezes and the austerity he expects all his subordinates to follow. Okay, he was awarded $135,041 in performance-based compensation (deferred, of course). Before anyone starts kicking the incumbent around for being granted even this relatively meager reward, let's give some thought to the fix the Postal Service would have been in if he had not wrung out several billions of dollars in costs that made up the fat (some dare call it "slush") enjoyed by his predecessors. If the present PMG had not been so ardent in his desire to strive for greater cost efficiency, the questions currently expressed over the viability of our universal mail delivery system would have been laid before Congress years before today.

    From my perspective, the incentive granted by the Board of Governors was more than deserved. Does he deserve something similar in the future? Well, that's between the Board and its PMG to determine based on clearly measurable outcomes.
    Some people call Washington Hollywood on the Potomac. It's an apt description. And the next postal drama will unfold when the House postal oversight subcommittee holds its next round of hearings at which the PMG and, I would expect, the postal board chairman will likely testify.

    There's an old saying: "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." Before anyone accuses the PMG from enriching himself from public office, Congress should take a very close look at the millionaires that go by the title "The Honorable." All that they have wasn't earned solely from the congressional salaries the nation paid them. A considerable amount of what they hold stemmed from the power that's inherent in the congressional positions they hold... you know, publishers' book advances, speaking fees and a bird's eye view of which segments of industry will gain from the pork that's a part of every year's appropriations. (In any other sector of life, this bird's eye view would be called insider knowledge... but, heaven forbid.)
    There are many, many important things to which we need our Congress to attend. Scrutinizing the compensation provided to the chief executive officer of the nation's Postal Service isn't one of them.

    Gene Del Polito is President, Association for Postal Commerce. He can be reached at 703 524 0096. For more information, please visit http://postcom.org.
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