Eight words that redirected the USPS

Do words really matter? Now and then, in a bureaucratic age, one is tempted to think that they don't. The world, it sometimes seems, is run less by insight and eloquence than by politics and statistics. By any standard, we're told, the quality of our public discourse is pretty low: And even when it rises above the level of a few graphs and a grunt, the use of language often assaults the ear, insults the mind, and befogs the very issues it means to illumine.

So I was pleased to discover, the other day, that an eight-word sentence fragment, well turned and well timed, managed to save the United States Postal Service (USPS) some $3.6 million.

The occasion, not otherwise auspicious, was the July 10 meeting of the USPS Board of Governors at postal headquarters here. The nine-member board had met, in public, to march through a rather dreary agenda -- including an item, put forward by USPS managers, proposing a ``mail classification change regarding forwarding of mail by commercial mail receiving agents.''

These agents, or CMRAs, have discovered a perfectly legal market for a service your local post office doesn't provide: forwarding your mail while you travel. If you have all your mail sent to a CMRA, it agrees -- for a fee -- to send it on to you wherever you are.

Along the way, however, the nation's 2,000 or so CMRAs discovered something else: that certain addresses are more prestigious than others. Have you set yourself up as an entertainment consultant in East Overshoe? Do you run a financial service firm in West Succotash? Would you rather have a mailing address in Hollywood, or one on Wall Street? No problem: A CMRA will be happy to accommodate you. Your clients need never know that your ``office'' at your chosen address is but a small box thousands of miles

from your desk.

But two problems arise. The first was resolved years ago, when the postal service decided that, once a letter reaches the intended CMRA, it is considered to have been delivered. So it can only be forwarded by adding a new stamp.

The second problem faced the governors at their July meeting: what to do with the mail of clients who have severed their relationships with a CMRA. Since they no longer ``reside'' at that address, their mail cannot really be said to have been ``delivered'' when it shows up at the CMRA. So is the CMRA suddenly free to forward it without a new stamp -- as any other firm could for any piece of mail misdirected to its offices? Or are mail-receivers who have once formed relationships

with CMRAs different from ordinary folks? And how is the postal service to know when a contract with a CMRA is terminated -- when, in other words, mail that used to need an extra stamp suddenly gets to travel free?

An arcane issue, to be sure. Yet the discussion, surprisingly enough, was lively. The kindhearted postal management folks were plumping for a free forwarding provision -- even though, they estimated, it might cost them as much as $3.6 million. Commissioner William J. Sullivan demurred, noting that the user of the ``accommodation address'' ought to ``bear some of the cost and the inconvenience for the problems that arise.''

But several of the governors were inclined to support the management provision -- either because they felt (as Commissioner John L. Ryan did) that ``you could make almost as good an argument on one side as you could on the other,'' or because (as Commissioner John N. Griesemer said) ``we ought to go along with management'' rather than get so ``deeply into the nuts and bolts'' of operations.

So Mr. Griesemer moved the motion. And Postmaster General Paul N. Carlin, seconding, called attention to the sender of the mail, ``who paid the postage in the first place and wants it delivered.''

And then Mr. Sullivan spoke the eight words. ``The sender,'' he quipped, ``otherwise known as the deceived party.''

There was a second of silence before the governors, and the press, broke out in laughter. ``That's the end of that one,'' said someone behind me. And so it proved to be.

``The question,'' continued Sullivan, ``is how we deliver to deceptors.''

``I think I've been talked out of my motion,'' said Mr. Griesemer with a chuckle, moments before it was voted down.

The point here is not whether, in the context of a projected $500 million USPS deficit this year, this was the wise vote. Nor is it even whether, in context, the word ``deceived'' is too strong.

The point is simply that a few good words, even in the drabbest corners of public policy discussions, can still carry the day.

A Monday column

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