The federal government didn’t go over a fiscal cliff this year, but the U.S. Postal Service could if Congress doesn’t act soon.

In 2006, Congress passed a misguided bill that required the Postal Service to pre-fund 100 percent of its anticipated retirement and health care costs within 10 years. Combined with the drop in mail volume associated with the 2008 recession, this requirement has put unprecedented stress on the Postal Service and the trillion dollar private mailing industry for which USPS is a foundation. We need to pass legislation to fix that problem and to let the Postal Service innovate in the digital age.

Sen. Mark Begich is working with the Alaska Congressional delegation and other members of Congress to save the Postal Service, and they have made progress working across party lines despite partisan rancor in Washington, D.C. This effort is essential. For the last 40 years, the U.S. Postal Service has been a self-supporting entity that is not subsidized with taxes. We need to keep it that way, and we need to maintain its service in Alaska.

Last year, Begich was one of 69 senators to vote for legislation that eliminated the USPS prefunding requirement and gave the U.S. Postal Service flexibility to innovate. Today, the USPS is prohibited from conducting a wide range of businesses. For example, it is illegal for it to contract with local entrepreneurs and open a coffee stand in a post office. It is illegal for the USPS to work with credit unions or banks to co-locate those services in a post office. The bipartisan senate bill would have let the USPS cut through that red tape and innovate.

Unfortunately, the House refused to take up the legislation. Instead, Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, spearheaded legislation that would have dismantled the USPS through a bankruptcy-type process in order to attack public employee unions. His legislation also included a stand-alone section that would have ended bypass mail service for Alaska, a service that is essential for communities not served by our road network.

While that legislation put additional financial burdens on the USPS, it mandated reductions in days of delivery and prohibited the kind of innovation the service needs. Although that legislation passed committee, it did not come to the House floor due to the efforts of Democrats and the Alaska delegation. As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senator Begich organized a nationwide conference call with letter carriers, mail handlers and members of Congress to oppose the House bill and support the bipartisan Senate bill.

This month marks a new Congress, and since the House failed to pass the bipartisan postal reform legislation, Congress has to start over. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the USPS can continue to provide vital services. Package volume grows and has offset some of the lost mail volume resulting from online bill payment. New innovation and public-private partnerships offer opportunities to increase postal revenue. No state in America relies on the USPS more than Alaska, and that service is particularly important for coastal and Bush communities.

Amidst fiscal cliff brinksmanship and other important national debates, there was little coverage of the need to reform laws governing the USPS. Yet few issues debated by Congress this year will have such a significant impact on our way of life in Alaska, and we are fortunate that Senator Begich continues to work across party lines to protect mail service in Alaska.

Kay Brown is executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party.

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