Congress is moving toward a decision on the U.S. Postal Service, armed with "numbers" that point in opposite directions.
Few decisions this year will have such a large impact on the American public. Few debates will so clearly show how lawmakers can dig in on issues and totally ignore many of the pertinent facts.
Those who want an extreme downsizing for the USPS say they have irrefutable numbers:
º The USPS is on track to show an $8.3 billion loss this year.
º Statistics indicate that 80 percent of post offices lose money by not bringing in enough stamp sales or other charges to cover expenses.
º Americans are using postal services less. The 177 billion pieces of mail delivered last year are down more than 30 percent from a decade ago.
Those who favor minimal changes have their own statistics:
º The USPS had a net profit of $611 million sorting and delivering mail the past four fiscal years.
º The "loss" cited by the downsizing advocates was caused by a 2006 law that requires the Postal Service to prefund future retiree benefits for the next 75 years -- and do most of the prefunding within the first decade.
º Actuarials say the Postal Service has overpaid the retirement fund by as much as $75 billion and if Congress would allow the use of some of that money the artificial deficit would be eliminated.
There are lots of other figures offered by both sides. Unfortunately, too many of the debaters are talking past each other, rejecting verifiable facts that would yield a more complete picture.
On Friday, the USPS was supposed to make a $5.5 billion payment to fund future retirement benefits. If Congress had been doing its job, that payment would have been waived.
Unfortunately, those who want to downsize the Postal Service saw forcing the payment, to create a funding hole, as a way to further their cause.
Downsizing proponents have called for the elimination of 120,000 Postal Service jobs, elimination of Saturday delivery, closure of 3,650 post offices and the closure of 270 processing centers.
The biggest false argument by these folks is that it will save taxpayer dollars. What they ignore is that the Postal Service is designed to be self-supporting, and would be if not for a retirement prefunding scheme that would never be tolerated in a private industry.
The USPS would not need tax dollars if it was not artificially burdened by that awful decision by Congress five years ago.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has publicly called for drastic downsizing, which has angered Postal Service employees. They don't care if he's taken that position at the behest of the Obama administration. Nor does it matter that the leader of any federal agency would be ill advised to point out to Congress that "you're the ones who created this problem."
Mark Strong, president of the National League of Postmasters, cannot understand how a postmaster general would agree to dismantle a federal agency that remains vital.
"Rural areas, they only have the post office. They don't have banks. Many of them don't even have cell phone service, let alone the Internet," Strong told Bloomberg Businessweek.
The answer to Postal Service problems seems to lie somewhere between the two extremes.
Postal services are vital, but are on the decline. Cuts may be needed, but should be made with a scalpel, not a meat cleaver.
Congress should probably eliminate the huge retirement prefunding obligation. It seems unlikely that lawmakers will agree to repay the Postal Service because that would show up as adding to the federal deficit. This column is not long enough to explain the bookkeeping gimmicks that allow the use of non-tax funds to appear as false positives in the U.S. budget.
The USPS should not be dismantled or cut to the extreme levels being proposed. Keep in mind that these cuts will not save tax dollars and mass layoffs will not help the economy.
Neither should the Postal Service be left without any changes. The trend toward fewer mail deliveries means it can be streamlined. And that process has been under way.
Tom Calvert, a union steward for National Association of Letter Carriers Local 291 out of Hannibal, Mo., said the union has bought into those changes.
"What we do is when volume declines, we adjust our routes and get the same coverage with fewer people. We're all doing more work and that has brought our productivity up," Calvert said.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has sponsored legislation to cut wages and benefits and slash the number of USPS workers and facilities.
U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., has a bill to eliminate the retirement prefunding plan and repay some of that money to the Postal Service.
Unfortunately, many members of Congress will take one of these sides rather than seeking a middle ground that makes more sense. They'll worry about being on the winning side.
And when that means Americans lose, they'll cast all the blame on the other guys.