The job of postmaster general was once one of the country's most politically powerful. It is also one of the oldest; a version of the position existed before the Declaration of Independence.
But today, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe finds himself continually caught in the political crossfire. Donahoe is tangling with unions and members of Congress over how to manage the Postal Service's future — as it faces huge losses, dwindling mail volume and ballooning costs.
It may seem strange now, but Donahoe was originally drawn to postal work by the money.
"$4.76 an hour, and in 1975 that was a lot of money," he recalls, "so I thought, 'Well, I'll try that for a while until I'm done with school,' and I never left."
In 37 years, he has occupied nearly every position at the Postal Service: "vehicle maintenance, airport operations, accounting, personnel, labor relations."
The Postal Service is one of the largest employers in the country, but it is saddled with enormous retirement and health care costs that it cannot afford. It's running billions of dollars in the red and has had to borrow heavily from the U.S. Treasury. Its main source of revenue — first-class mail — is falling off. It is trying to grow its package-delivery business, but there, it competes with FedEx and UPS, and technological change is swift.
Donahoe grew up in Pittsburgh, coming of age at a time when that city was shaped by its own rapidly declining industry.
"In the '80s, we lost the steel industry. Gone! Well, I witnessed 100,000 people lose their jobs because people did not pay attention to what was going on in the economy," he says.
Donahoe is closing some mail-sorting facilities and reducing hours at less-trafficked post offices.
But reining in costs isn't just a business challenge; it's politically fraught. That's because, though its operations are not taxpayer-funded, the Postal Service is also controlled by Congress, which mandates delivery of mail to every household in the United States and requires it to prefund retiree benefits, decades into the future.
This hybrid governance structure, not surprisingly, leads to tension. Donahoe's most public skirmish with Capitol Hill came earlier this year, when he announced plans to save money by ending Saturday letter delivery without congressional approval. Two months later, Congress forced him to scrap those plans.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., blasted Donahoe: "Basically flouting the will of Congress on issues like six-day delivery versus five-day delivery — I think that was a sorry episode, a series of real misjudgments by the postmaster general that I think ended up hurting his credibility and hurting the Postal Service."
Postal workers' unions agree, saying Donahoe misunderstands the problem.
"It is not merely the result of technological change, the bad economy or poor management, though those factors have contributed," Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, told Congress in April.
Rolando claims that reducing required retiree contributions would solve most fiscal problems, without reducing deliveries.
Donahoe counters it's the unions that are misguided.
"I think they're not reflective of their membership," Donahoe says. "I speak to the people in the field. And time and time again, they've said to me, 'Don't give up on this stuff; my job's at stake.' "
Polls indicate the public supports ending Saturday letter delivery. So does Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who this month introduced a bill that, among other things, would allow that cut.
Donahoe says he doesn't like the political crossfire. He demurs when asked his party affiliation.
"I better not say," he says with a laugh. "I'm not going to tell you what I am, but I am probably different than most people think."
But he lights up when discussing stamps — especially collectibles.
Donahoe owns every stamp printed since 1892. Opening a box of sheets of reprinted vintage stamps, he explains, "These are proof sheets. They're stamps, but they're not cut, so you would actually buy this for a collection."
That generates almost pure profit for the Postal Service, he notes. But the fact is: Stamp collecting isn't exactly en vogue.
"Everybody knows how to do Facebook and iPads and stuff like that. But that kind of stuff, that is a lost art," he says. "That's a shame. That's a problem, because there's a lot fewer people [writing] today."
Donahoe laments the current state of things. He may be nostalgic, but he also says that in order to survive, the Postal Service must embrace the future.