Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich both were swift to claim victory Wednesday in keeping Alaska's bypass mail system intact.
Bypass mail is a system that allows universal service to Bush Alaska at standard rates through postal service subsidies. Sen. John McCain proposed an amendment to postal service legislation that would have required the state to reimburse the U.S. Postal Service about $25 million a year for the service.
Murkowski and Begich campaigned hard among their colleagues against the amendment, and Wednesday it was withdrawn.
Their argument is simple. The subsidy is fair because it meets the postal service obligation to provide universal service throughout the United States at universal rates. Some service is a money-loser, but the first objective of the USPS is to deliver the mail, not make money. Some of its routes will never pay. That's why private delivery services like FedEx and UPS contract with the postal service to deliver to some remote locations.
USPS has a Constitutional charge to deliver the mail.
The counter argument also is fairly simple. The postal service needs to make cuts, and can't justify continued subsidies for Alaska service -- especially in a state that runs a surplus in the billions.
As a practical matter, it would be fine with us if the state picked up the tab. It's the service that counts -- universal service to Alaska villages that otherwise would have to pay even more prohibitive rates for everything from snowmachine parts to a gallon of milk.
The rub is that Alaska is part of the United States, and when we joined the union we qualified for the benefits of universal service like everyone else, regardless of geography. It's a matter of equity.
There still remains, however, the question of what Alaska is willing to give up as Congress tries to wrestle the federal deficit under control. The postal service debt is not part of the federal deficit, but the question reflects the conundrum faces by our congressional delegation. In the Senate, both Murkowski and Begich have warned of cuts to come, of the need for sacrifice. But neither they nor anyone else in a leadership position of authority has suggested what Alaska might do without.
The principle of sacrifice is much easier to contemplate than the act.
We wouldn't start with bypass mail. Too many Alaskans depend upon it, and Kotzebue and Kivalina are as much a part of the United States as anywhere else.
But if the federal deficit is to shrink -- and the postal service to sustain itself -- we'll have to start somewhere.
BOTTOM LINE: Bypass mail survives, but Alaska will face other cuts to come.