In Praise of Crying Wolf

In Moira Cotlier’s cover story on how the European foot and mouth disease epidemic may hurt U.S. catalogers, consultant Andrea Lawson-Gray says, “We’re a country that is fairly short-sighted about problems that are not happening on our shores.” As a devotee of the British tabloids, I’d been reading about foot and mouth since February, and I’m surprised that it took several months before I read about the disease in a U.S. newspaper.

But overseas problems aren’t the only ones that we in the States tend to be myopic about. Case in point: the continuing drama of the U.S. Postal Service. During my nearly six years here at Catalog Age, I’ve edited a seemingly endless stream of stories about the need for postal reform and the lack of Congressional interest in it.

From an October 1997 article: “…Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) was about to introduce a revision of his Postal Reform Act (H.R. 22). Although some observers don’t feel there’s enough time left this year for the bill to gain the support needed for it to be passed….”

From a June 1998 article: “Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) introduced his Postal Reform Act in 1996, then reintroduced it last year….[and] despite a lack of interest among Congress, [he] believes his bill might be passed by 2001.”

From an April 2000 issue: “Introduced in June 1996 by Rep. John McHugh (R-NY), H.R. 22 is designed to reorganize the U.S. Postal Service…. The bill has had difficulty gaining support in Congress, largely because the Postal Service has been profitable for several years now. In other words, if the USPS ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

You get the idea. Never mind the increasing competition from the private sector and the Internet, never mind complaints about rates and service from catalogers and other commercial customers — the legislators have other things to worry about.

Then in late March, as detailed in Paul Miller’s article on the worsening postal crisis (page 5), the USPS says that things are so bad, it might have to cancel Saturday delivery. Now Congress and the mainstream media are in a tizzy. Now they see a need for postal reform. Now McHugh’s colleagues are urging him to reintroduce his postal reform legislation.

So the Postal Service’s ploy to get Congress’ attention worked. (And it had to have been a ploy, since the USPS can’t cancel Saturday delivery without Congressional approval of a law that overrides the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970.) Maybe, just maybe, a postal reform bill will pass this year.

If only McHugh and the various mailers associations hadn’t wasted so much time justifying and explaining why reform was necessary and instead had asked the Postal Service to threaten to curtail delivery years ago.

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