GETTING the mails through in the United States has always been a genuine challenge for the US Postal Service and its many predecessor agencies. That a letter can be mailed from a major city on the East Coast or the West Coast and several days later arrive at the door of some family at the opposite end of the nation -- or a small, semirural community in the Middle West or elsewhere -- is a remarkable achievement. Granted, many Americans are often annoyed that delivery between key points can be so chronically slow.
Still, we suspect that much of the criticism so often heard about the post office is born not so much of ill will toward the agency as the feeling of appreciation that most Americans hold for the system -- a recognition that in a transcontinental democracy the size of the United States, only the very best postal system will suffice.
In this regard, the concern now being heard about a possible new rate increase as early as next year ought not be taken lightly.
Such an increase would come on top of the most recent one, including the new 22-cent stamp for first-class mail that went into effect this year. The postal system should have the funds it needs. But before any additional hike is proposed, the public could be expected to ask the Postal Service to ensure that the system is being run as economically as possible.
The postal system is heading toward what could be a whopping $500 million deficit for the fiscal year ending this September.
The deficit would follow three successive years of profits for the service, as well as the added revenues now coming in under the new rate increase.
The chief economic problem for the system is labor costs -- which account for more than 80 percent of the agency's entire $26 billion budget.
One question that postal officials need to answer is why, with all the movement toward computerization that has occurred within the system lately, the number of employees has actually risen. Employment has climbed to 740,000, from 702,000 last October. It is true that the volume of mail has gone up sharply -- in part reflecting an increase in business and advertising mail -- as a consequence of better economic conditions during the past two years. That in turn has led to a heavy reliance on overtime wit hin the system.
Other causes add to increased postal expenses, such as the need for the Postal Service to make new contracts with airlines following the demise of the Civil Aeronautics Board. And second-class mail, including newspapers and magazines, is now being handled at major post offices instead of at bulk-mail centers.
Postal officials are taking steps to cut costs. Executive salaries have been slashed and planned pay increases delayed. Overtime is being cut back throughout the system. A planned Christmas-holiday post card stamp has been canceled.
The Postal Service deserves credit for taking such steps. But obviously more needs to be done to get the agency's rising deficit down. One possible solution: contracting out some post office work. The department has resisted that approach, contending it works against employee morale.
We suspect that most Americans, for all their occasional grousings about the United States Postal Service, will continue to pay whatever is necessary to ensure a first-rate post office.
What they ask for in return is that the agency take all the practical steps it can to reduce unnecessary expenses.