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The United States Postal Service is careening toward insolvency, with projections showing it finishing another year spending far more than it earns.
A report issued this month by the Government Accountability Office revealed the postal service posted a net loss of $329 million in the first quarter of the current fiscal year.
It's on pace to lose $6.4 billion through September, barely has $1 billion in cash reserves and plans to borrow billions more this year from the U.S. Treasury, pushing its debt level to the maximum allowed by law — $15 billion.
This impending financial collapse should worry every American.
No other organization is constitutionally mandated to connect this nation's urban centers to its most rural outposts. The U.S. Postal Service has fulfilled this mission without receiving a government subsidy.
Mail volume, the postal service's primary source of revenue, has declined significantly, in part because of the recession but also because more Americans are communicating through e-mail and social networks and paying bills online.
Another factor is a federal law, passed in 2006, that required the prefunding of retiree benefits on a level greater than other federal agencies.
That requirement, which posed no problems during good years, is now consuming a growing percentage of declining revenue.
As the General Accounting Office notes, President Barack Obama has proposed to give the postal service short-term "breathing room" by permitting it to pay just $1.5 billion of the $5.5 billion required for its annual retiree health benefit fund.
In recent years, the postal service has shed 125,000 jobs, shuttered hundreds of unprofitable post offices and tagged thousands more for closure.
It has proposed opening kiosks in stores, adjusting prices to reflect market demand, restructuring payments for the retiree health benefits fund and dropping Saturday mail delivery.
Some of those changes require congressional approval. But so far, there has been little indication that Congress is willing to recognize the urgency.
That's unfair, both to the employees of the postal service and to the public that relies on it. No organization can be expected to compete successfully in the marketplace if government won't let it adapt, particularly if it's already saddled with near-crippling levels of obligations.
Congress should give the postal service the flexibility it needs to save itself. Time is running out.
This Landmark News Service editorial first appeared in the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk.