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Americans are so caught up in the problems of the economy -- millions of unemployed and underemployed, homes lost in foreclosure -- that little attention is paid to one of the basics of our life: the mail.

Many of us have forgotten how great it is to receive a letter in our mailboxes from a friend or a family member, a greeting card on a special occasion, on paper that can be read again and again. The temptation to use email, Facebook, Twitter or Skype is all too great because they're almost instantaneous. But the only way words are really lasting is on that magic word: paper.

The disappearance of what is derogatorily called snail mail is at the root of the financial crisis facing the U.S. Postal Service. It's long past time to try to remedy this problem.

Less and less first-class mail is being sent every year through the post office in our community, even though our current rate of 44 cents "forever" is cheaper than other countries'. Our mail delivery comes from a private corporation established by Congress 40 years ago and not from a federal agency, as it had been since 1775 (Benjamin Franklin was its first postmaster general.). The USPS may be an "independent" federal agency but it still relies on Congress for the powers to do most anything.

The steadiest source of income for the Postal Service has been advertising, much of which we tend to throw away without reading or opening. Competition to the USPS in sending packages or even documents comes from such carriers as UPS and FedEx.

This continuing financial crisis came to a head last week before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in still another hearing. It was triggered by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe's warning that his agency is running out of money.

If no remedies are found by the end of this month, it cannot make required pension fund payments. By next summer or fall, it might not have money for payrolls or anything else.

Among the solutions being debated: Close more distribution centers and smaller post offices. Eliminate Saturday deliveries. Stop making unneeded pension and health benefit fund payments. Withdraw billions of dollars that might never be needed for retirees. Allow more workers to retire, eventually further reducing the workforce by 210,000, similar to plans that helped save the auto industry.

Each of those has met some opposition and/or has unwanted consequences: Layoffs would not only create hardships for those workers but add to our country's already critical unemployment rate. Smaller post offices are often the heartbeat of communities. Saturday deliveries are vital to many businesses. Retirement benefits may be threatened.

Sen. Tom Carper has been in the forefront of introducing legislation that would take some financial burdens off the Postal Service.

He is chairman of the tongue-twisting Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security. Post offices are its responsibility, and the senior Delaware senator is one of the most knowledgeable on this complicated and critical situation.

Among the solid suggestions to solve the crisis is Carper's bill, the Postal Operations Sustainment and Transformation Act of 2011, or POST, which spells out both cutback and expansion possibilities for the Postal Service. Its principal provisions would free billions of dollars overpaid into retiree funds; permit post offices to offer new products and services, as many other countries do; allow the end to Saturday deliveries; and replace small post offices with kiosks or co-locate them in other community businesses.

Congress and the White House have so far failed to endorse Carper's plan or any other, just another example of the failure of our government to realistically attack crises but instead play politics.

After Carper testified at Tuesday's hearing and spoke about it Wednesday on the floor of the Senate, he told me he would "move heaven and earth" to correct this dire situation, which is getting worse every day.

For perhaps the first time, he is hopeful that the badly divided Congress and the Obama administration realize how critical things are with the Postal Service.

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