Federal spending is always a target for those of us who believe Washington is too generous with other people’s money. But even the most liberal among us must look askance at some of our government’s spending practices.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that under a federal program exclusive to Alaska, the United States Postal Service “is responsible for shipping more than 100 million pounds a year of apples, frozen meat, dog food, diapers and countless other consumer items to off-road villages in the sparsely populated outposts known as the bush.”
The program, known as The Alaska Bypass, has caused the postal service to lose $2.5 billion over the past three decades, the newspaper reported. It all began 33 years ago when the late senator Ted Stevens, a powerful Alaskan Republican, steered an earmark through Congress to accommodate his constituents.
Today, the Postal Service annually loses billions of dollars as the service’s bread-and-butter customers increasingly rely on the Internet to communicate and pay their bills. The cost of the Alaska Bypass is just one more burden on its frayed budget.
And these losses are exacerbated by a Congressional mandate to set aside $5 billion every year to fund future health-care expenses for retired postal workers, a mandate unique to the postal service.
“Despite critics’ efforts, the Alaska Bypass has been untouchable,” the Post reported. “Few in Congress understand it. Tinkering with it would rankle politicians from other rural states who fear this could be the first step toward scaling back mail delivery to other far-flung places.”
Two years ago, Rep. Darrell Issa , the California Republican who is chairman of the House committee that oversees the Postal Service, proposed changes to the Bypass, but Alaska’s two senators — Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat —lobbied senators from other rural states to leave the Bypass alone.
They were armed with an opinion from the Congressional Research Service that said having Alaska pay for the delivery service might be unconstitutional. That opinion appears to be based on the fact that the United States government has always vowed to support Americans no matter where in the country they live.
But get this: “As part of its obligation to provide universal delivery, the Postal Service ferries, flies, hovercrafts and even dispatches mules to a handful of other remote communities where letter carriers can’t drive,” the newspaper report observed.
“But only in Alaska do packages weighing at least 1,000 pounds — 930 pounds above the heaviest parcel post box allowed in the Lower 48 states — count as a universal service.
“Only in Alaska do flat-screen televisions, paper towels, charcoal grills, citronella candles and apples count as mail.”
And under prevailing law — again with the late Sen. Stevens as its guardian — only five airlines are permitted to carry this “mail.” Unlike all others in the United States, these airlines are exempt from regular federal controls.
That’s why the rates these airlines charge the Postal Service are not the result of competitive bidding or market forces but are set by the Department of Transportation, based on data the carriers submit for fuel, labor, maintenance and terminal fees.
“The government does not question the charges, but calculates the rates so the airlines on average make an annual profit of 15.5 percent,” the Post discovered. “Carriers with below-average costs make even more.”
An aviation expert at the University of Florida, Ahmed Abdelghany, said these airlines are involved in “an incredible business” because most commercial airlines struggle to hit profit margins of 2 or 3 percent.
This, you can be sure, is hardly the only example of members of Congress abusing federal spending to benefit select parties. Lawmakers could make a good start on eliminating such wasteful practices by getting rid of the Alaska Bypass.
Not even the “big spending liberals” conservatives complain about can be pleased with this arrangement, no matter how important it may be to those who live in rural Alaska. It’s time for Congress to put aside its provincial proclivities and come to the rescue of the beleaguered postal service.