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Kinder, Gentler Postal Rates

AMERICA is kept alive partly by its civic culture - its countless volunteer groups, churches, and political, educational, and charitable organizations. This culture acts as a "mediating structure" in the society - offering space outside of business and the state to think, help, work, and grow.

When it comes to writing speeches about the importance of civic culture in America, the White House excels. When the time comes to back that culture, the record is often found wanting.

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The latest example is the president's budget request on mailing privileges for nonprofit groups. Postage problems may sound mundane. But since we no longer all live in small villages, a great deal of US civic culture takes place through the mail - funding requests, information, newsletters, periodicals, and so on. Count this newspaper in this crowd.

For some years, the federal government has chipped in to help with the cost of second- and third-class nonprofit mail. Each year the United States Postal Service tells Congress how much "revenue forgone" money it needs to cover that mail. Last year the figure was about $460 million out of USPS revenue of $42.5 billion. Not extravagant.

The fight over money, not surprisingly, has gotten tougher. Not that Washington pays the whole freight. Nonprofits pay too. Last year they were hit hard: 1991 costs rose 25 to 40 percent as part of the overall postal increase.

After that, nonprofits wanted stability. The Postal Service asked for $481.9 million this year - a measly $12 million increase. But White House "prudence" would fund only $121.9 million, a $360 million cut. If adopted by Congress, this would result in a 15 to 30 percent increase in postage costs for some groups. Some groups would be eliminated entirely.

Congress should reject that plan and keep the civic groups, already cut back, in the current budgetary framework.

That said, we must add that it is becoming clear to those who want to protect and stabilize mail costs for nonprofits that the political climate in Washington can offer only limited support for the current nonprofit subsidy approach. Now is the time for nonprofits to diligently explore another way of doing business.

Perhaps the best alternative is creating a separate "subclass" of mail. This would place nonprofit rates under the authority of the Postal Service. Currently rates are tied to the mercurial budgetary fights between Congress and the White House.

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Three benefits come from a separate subclass: First, because nonprofit rates would be structured into the USPS, mail costs would not be dependent on the whims and cycles of Washington and the market. Nonprofits would pay overhead. But the cost would rise more slowly.

Second, the nonprofit rates (if set properly) would not be tinkered with or reclassified whenever a congressional staffer has a bright idea. Currently the administration is suggesting a ghastly range of recategorizations (periodicals with more than 10 percent advertising would no longer be protected, for example). The White House or Congress could not manipulate nonprofits.

Third, the classification would be clearly value-based. This allows for judgment. Mail slipping too far into commercialism, or groups less purely nonprofit, would be classified differently.

Times are tight. The budget pie is shrinking. But Congress must not treat American civic culture with a shrug.

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