If you've seen The Simpsons Movie, you'll remember the scene where Homer is stuck, literally, between a rock and a hard place. He's tied to a rope and swinging between a big rock and a saloon called "Hard Place," slamming up against both. It's a funny depiction - if a little obvious - of the adage we've all used or experienced in our lives: "caught between a rock and a hard place."


The U.S. Postal Service finds itself in just that place. By extension, the Postal Service's customers share this difficult predicament. On one side (the rock) is the faltering economy, which has contributed to a drop in mail volumes of historic proportion. The declining volume has resulted in the Postal Service staring into the abyss of a $2+ billion loss for fiscal year 2008. Now here's the hard place. The new postal law caps the price increases the Postal Service can charge on its market-dominant products at the rate of inflation. This Consumer Price Index (CPI) cap is applied at the class level, which means the Postal Service can tweak rates within a class above or below the rate of inflation, but the entire class as a whole has to be at or below CPI.


When the USPS files for its annual price adjustment for 2009 in January or February, CPI could be about five percent for the year, which would cap price increases within the class at five percent. From a mailers' perspective, the price cap is a huge relief. If we were still living in a cost-of-service world, where the Postal Service could raise rates on products based on their costs, we might be looking at very large increases next price hike. The price cap precludes those types of large overall increases, but it puts enormous pressure on the Postal Service to cut costs in order to keep itself from losing a lot of money in FY 2009. Can the USPS even secure enough money to return to the black with a five percent overall increase? I am not sure it can.


Here's where the hard place gets even harder. What if the economy gets so bad (read, an extended recession) that the Postal Service decides that it needs to seek an "exigent rate case" due to the extraordinary or exceptional circumstances of a recession? Legal minds can argue whether a recession constitutes an "extraordinary" or an "exceptional" circumstance under the postal law, but if the Postal Service keeps bleeding red ink, it's likely to consider all options. While Postmaster General Jack Potter has promised not to seek an exigent rate case this year, the promise doesn't hold forever.


Still, an exigent rate case to bolster revenue seems like a bad idea, especially when the main reason for the financial struggles is the tough economy and its effect on mailers, the Postal Service's customers. Even a minor price adjustment in 2009, of say the inflation-based cap, is going to hurt mailers. Any further increase in a mailer's costs will have an impact on the amount of mail they send, which hurts overall mail volume, which depresses Postal Service revenues, which digs the hole deeper, etc. A rock and a hard place, indeed.

So, if you are Jack Potter, what do you do? I've had a few people ask me this question and there is no easy answer. Of course, the Postal Service will continue to do what it has done remarkably well: it will continue to shed costs. It will also focus seriously on growing revenue. But growing revenue in challenging economic times is not easy for any business, especially a mature business that has seen some of its customers turn to the Internet.


The prognosis seems dire, but I have a couple of recommendations that would help. Both require the help of our friends on Capitol Hill. One provision in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act requires the Postal Service to pre-fund its retirees' health benefits. The payments are amortized over 10 years and come to about $5 billion a year. The 10-year amortization schedule was built into law primarily to satisfy budget hawks in Congress. This pre-funding plan had an impact on the "scoring" of the overall government budget, which is too confusing to explain in this small space. The bottom line, however, was that some members of Congress insisted that the new postal law have a minimal impact on the overall budget - no matter the cost to the Postal Service and users of the mail.


So, why not tweak that part of the law and make a longer amortization schedule for the pre-funding of retiree health benefits? If this schedule were over 20 years, the Postal Service would save about $2.5 billion a year, which would go a long way toward shoring up USPS finances. Congress is willing to bail out financial institutions that gambled on risky investments. The postal industry wouldn't even be asking for a bailout, just a longer time to pay its pre-funding plan. Yes, that's right its pre-funding plan, which by the way, will make it one of the only government entities to have dynamically funded its retiree health benefits.


Here's my second suggestion to Congress: Allow the Postal Service to right-size its network. The Postal Service needs the freedom to align its network to meet today's mailing and shipping needs. It needs to gain efficiencies to drive down costs and secure service, which is the underpinning of its brand. If members of Congress want to insist that postal facilities can't be closed in their districts, then pony up the money through an appropriation. Otherwise, let the Postal Service do the right thing.


These are challenging times and there is no time for dawdling. We don't have the luxury of debating for a decade a change in our postal law. Congress needs to step to the plate and give the nation's postal system the relief it deserves.


Kate Muth is VP of the Association for Postal Commerce. Contact her at kmuth@postcom.org, 703-524-0096 or visit www.postcom.org.