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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Three cheers for Postmaster Donahoe

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe tells the nation in

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe tells the nation in September that the Postal Service needed $3 billion in reductions to avert bankruptcy. (Sept. 15, 2011) Credit: AP

I have a general rule when it comes to mail. If it's from UPS or FedEx, it's good news. If it's from the U.S. Postal Service, it's either bad news or a waste of time. I don't even want to look at it.

So planned elimination of Saturday mail delivery doesn't bother me one bit. As far as I'm concerned, it solves one-sixth of my mail problem. But that's just me.

Most Americans like getting mail, but they also agree that eliminating Saturday delivery is a good idea. Seventy percent said they favor ending weekend delivery to save the foundering USPS from bankruptcy in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

But even so, it took Patrick R. Donahoe, the blunt-talking Postmaster General, to find a loophole in the law large enough to act unilaterally on Saturday delivery. Donahoe has been asking -- begging -- Congress for years to give him the authority to halt service that day. And with good reason. The USPS is losing money hand-over-fist. Last year alone it lost $15.6 billion, and its deficits will exceed $20 billion per year beginning in 2016, according to current estimates. Cutting Saturday mail delivery is expected to save $2 billion per year. It won't save the Post Office, but it's a start.

Congress now has to decide whether it will challenge Donahoe's end-around play. The House and Senate don't like their powers circumvented, but more than that, their members relish opportunities to grandstand before voters. This is an opportunity to do just that to the 30 percent who still want six-day mail, and the audience who will be listening most keenly -- senior citizens who most favor continued Saturday mail -- also happen to be the most reliable voters.

Keep an eye out for the grandstanders. They'll be the ones proposing schemes to save Saturday mail, like allowing the USPS to stop putting money aside for employee pension costs, thus making matters worse in the long-term. They'll be the first members of Congress who need to be shown the door in 2014.

Conservative columnist George Will wrote a brilliant piece this week on U.S. debt and deficits, citing the work of recently deceased Nobel Laureate James Buchanan. Buchanan argued in his "public choice" theory of government that elected leaders are subject to the very same forces of self interest that private sector leaders are. That is, politicians may talk an altruistic game, but at the end of the day, they tend to look out for themselves, just as we all do. Forty years after Buchanan developed his groundbreaking school of thought, the notion is practically axiomatic. We all look at our members of Congress a little cockeyed. The average voter approval rating of Congress hovers at around 15 percent.

Constant gridlock in Washington at a time when hard choices have to be made is a chief reason for our attitudes about Congress. If 70 percent of Americans are OK with ending Saturday mail delivery and members of Congress are still too chicken to act, what does that say about the real things that need to be done to address our dangerous federal deficits? If the Washington politicians are too afraid to eliminate one day of mail, how are they ever going to raise the retirement age for Social Security or rein in Medicare costs, as must be done to save those programs?

Too bad we don't have 100 Patrick Donahoes in Washington.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.