The former manager of the Clinton administration's effort to reinvent government is calling on Congress to break up the U.S. Postal Service into two separate organizations — one public and one private.
Elaine C. Kamarck, who managed the National Performance Review for the Clinton administration, argues that as the business of delivering first-class mail fades away, the Postal Service needs flexibility to compete with private-sector rivals.
"The USPS exists right now in a never-never land," Kamarck wrote in a paper published recently by the Brookings Institution. "It is not fully public and it is not fully private. It is supposed to compete and innovate but it is stifled by law and saddled with a governance structure that impedes innovation."
Calls for full or partial privatization of the Postal Service are nothing new, but Kamarck's paper is unusual in that it does not come from the political right.
A founder of the pragmatist New Democrat movement, Kamarck served four years in the Clinton White House, directed a program on 21st-century governance at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and was a senior policy adviser to Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. She now heads the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings.
Kamarck is not calling for full privatization. She argues that the Postal Service's "universal service mandate" — which requires it to serve even the most remote inhabited locations — is a core value that has been "baked into the American value system."
"The importance of the concept of 'binding the nation together' seems to be as strong in the Information Age as it was in the beginning of the republic," she said.
Kamarck would give one part of a broken-up Postal Service the task of ensuring that universal service "defined in a way that meets the reality of the Information Age" — an acknowledgment that first-class mail is rapidly dwindling as a form of communication.
That universal service is currently subsidized by the Postal Service's growing and profitable package delivery business, which has prospered with the growing popularity of Internet shopping.
Kamarck said the other part of the Postal Service business should be a private entity freed from the laws and regulations that impede its flexibility. She said that organization should be free to compete with private-sector companies — "if and only if the subsidy issue can be worked out," so it doesn't have an unfair edge over its rivals.
Toni G. DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said separating and privatizing the agency's package delivery business, "is poorly conceived at best."
"At worst, and aside from being politically and economically unrealistic, the proposal aims to shift an enormous financial burden onto taxpayers — which is unnecessary and unwanted in any policy context," DeLancey said.
As Kamarck herself notes, her proposal faces fierce resistance in Congress — especially from Democrats.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said he is "dead set" against privatization. He said lawmakers of both parties are working together to draft legislation to put the Postal Service on a sound financial footing.
"This effort must and will continue until we have crafted bipartisan legislation that addresses the Postal Service's urgent needs," the Baltimore lawmaker said.
The nation's postal unions vigorously dispute her central premise: that the Postal Service is an inherently money-losing service that lacks the capability to adapt to changing times.
Jim Sauber, chief of staff for the National Association of Letter Carriers in Washington, said he was stunned by what he calls Kamarck's "shoddy" work.
"She's bought in to a conventional wisdom that's just wrong," he said. "Breaking it up would make no economic sense."
Sauber said the Postal Service has made significant cutbacks after facing severe problems and has posted an operating profit for the last two years. He and other union leaders contend that the agency's $5.5 billion net loss in 2014 is entirely the result of a 2006 congressional mandate that it prefund its retiree health care costs decades into the future — a requirement placed on no other employer.
Sauber pointed to Kamarck's criticism of the Postal Service's failure to end Saturday delivery to save costs as an example of her "misdiagnosing" the agency's problems. He said UPS and Federal Express now use the Postal Service to deliver 30 to 40 percent of their packages for the "last mile" — including addresses in rural areas and inner cities that the companies find it unprofitable to serve.
"They want seven-day delivery," Sauber said.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Kamarck underscored the distinction between her call for partial privatization and some conservative groups' advocacy of government withdrawal from mail delivery.
She conceded that the universal service arm she proposes might need taxpayer support, which the Postal Service does not receive now. But said the agency could limit that by cutting operating expenses.
"The bottom line is that nobody's actually working on this because Congress doesn't want to work on it," she said. "They keep kicking the can down the road."