Despite news reports to the contrary, the only thing clear about Friday’s appeals court decision on postal rates is that the U.S. Postal Service won and mail-dependent industries lost.
|Worth 49 cents -- or 47?|
As detailed in an article I wrote today for Publishing Executive (See Get Ready for Roller-Coaster Postage Rates.), the one thing the federal judges didn’t like about the current surcharge is the “count once” rule for determining how much the recent recession cost the Postal Service.
They court sent the Postal Regulatory Commission back to the drawing board to come up with what could be called a “count multiple times” rule.
Minimum cost: $1.2 billion
If the count-once rule is transferring “only” $2.8 billion from mailers to the Postal Service via the surcharge, we can only imagine what the “count many times” rule will do given that the recession lasted several years.
The Postal Service said today the additional amount is a minimum of $1.2 billion. That's the equivalent of about 8 months of the current 4.3% surcharge. And postal officials will argue for a much larger amount.
Some writers assume that, instead of allowing the surcharge to expire this summer, the PRC will just leave it in place until it brings in enough money to satisfy the “count many times” rule. Or that, as the Postal Service requested today, the PRC will at least leave the surcharge in place until the new revenue target and surcharge are approved.
But it’s not necessarily so simple. Unlike the appeals court judges, the PRC commissioners are no doubt aware that canceling the surcharge and then reinstating it weeks later would be disruptive for both the Postal Service and for mailers. (Just think of the public’s confusion if the price of Forever Stamps drops to 47 cents and then bounces back to 49 cents only a few weeks later.)
But the commissioners have to proceed cautiously and allow for due process, especially given the propensity of both postal officials and mailers groups to appeal PRC decisions regarding exigent rate hikes. They will have to wade through reams of mind-numbing econometric analyses before arriving at a revenue target for the new surcharge.
They may not be able to finish their work before the current surcharge expires. And even a perfectly reasonable assumption – that the USPS will not be overcompensated if the current surcharge is left in place until the details of “count many times” are worked out – may be open to legal challenges.
Nothing, by the way, says that the new “count many times” surcharge has to be 4.3%: The PRC could decide to make it higher so that the Postal Service is fully compensated for its recession losses in a timely manner.
And when the new “temporary” surcharge is supposed to expire, Congress might decide to make it permanent as a way of dodging real postal reform. I’m reminded that, back in January, my fortune-telling friend Madame Marie predicted that the surcharge would not disappear this year, adding this gem of political science: “What, you think I have crystal ball or something? All I know is, don’t ever bet on government getting rid of a temporary tax or fee.”