The New Year was only a few weeks old -- and even newer by the Chinese calendar -- when the Postal Service found itself on the front page of mainstream newspapers and leading the evening newscasts. Postmaster General Jack Potter created a buzz when he approached a Senate oversight hearing and asked Congress to give the USPS freedom to temporarily reduce the number of its delivery days if necessary. Potter suggested the Postal Service's dire financial situation could become so bad that the Postal Service might need to reduce delivery days if volume continued to tank in the quiet summer months.

It seems in this Year of the Ox, the postmaster general decided to grab the bull by the horns and take on the sacred cow that is six-day-a-week delivery. His idea was not well-received by Senator Susan Collins, one of the key architects of the postal reform law that passed two years ago. But newspaper articles and editorials appear to be running equally in favor and against the idea. The bigger point, however, is that PMG Potter got people thinking and talking; he got a debate started in the mainstream press. And for that, I applaud his courage to bring the idea to Congress.

This is a public policy issue and it needs to be debated seriously and informatively. The postmaster general did the right thing by raising the issue. Now, some people will say it's never going to happen, Congress won't stand for it. My reply is that it definitely will never happen if you don't ever ask for it. The postmaster general knows he is staring into the abyss of a financial crisis so severe that the Postal Service could run out of cash by the end of this fiscal year. Every option needs to be on the table.

Congress has oversight of the U.S. Postal Service and regularly inserts itself in the operations of the USPS. One major way it does this is with the language it includes in the annual appropriations bill for the Postal Service. The language, known as a "rider" to the bill, requires the Postal Service to deliver six days a week. The annual appropriations for the Postal Service do not include any funding for its operations, it is a small amount of money to fund overseas absentee ballots, free mail for the blind and revenue forgone. The Postal Service has not needed funding from Congress for its operations since 1982. But the requirement of six-day-a-week delivery - and Congress' tendency to meddle on network consolidation - has enormous impact on the Postal Service's operations.

I've heard some critics say Potter went up there trying to twist Congress' arm. In one hand, he had the request for a reduction in delivery days - a very unattractive option to senators. In the other, he asked for an adjustment in the schedule for pre-funding retirees' long-term health care. The change in delivery days would make the pre-funding adjustment seem like the better choice. They say he should have gone up there with a broader vision of his long-term strategy for the Postal Service.

Of course the postmaster general has a long-term strategy. I believe this request for the flexibility in delivery days is part of that strategy. Postal brass understands that some of this lost volume is never coming back. Our current postal system needs to be smaller and leaner than what we have today. The Postal Service predicts it could lose close to $6 billion this year, and it could face a liquidity problem by the end of the fiscal year. It is possible the USPS could lose between 12 billion and 15 billion pieces of mail this fiscal year. This is on top of a loss of 9 billion pieces in FY 2008! You simply cannot come out the other side of a 20-billion piece loss and look the same.

Congress does not move quickly, and when it does, it usually makes a mess of things. (Does anyone have full confidence in the stimulus package?) The entire postal community needs to raise the important questions about what this nation's postal system should look like in the future and who is going to pay for it. PMG Potter did the right thing by putting a very delicate public policy issue on the table for further dissection.
Kate Muth is President of Muth Communications, a writing, editing and consulting firm. She has written on postal topics for the past 14 years. You can reach her at