"What's in the future for the mail?" is the more relevant question for U.S. lawmakers and Postal Service officials, as the recession and a transformation in how we communicate shake the foundations of the mail-delivery business model.

Everyone grouses about the Postal Service from time to time, but as we mark the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express on Thursday, it bears remembering that it so recently required the services of dozens of young men on galloping horses to send a letter from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento. It took 10 days and cost $15 an ounce, the equivalent of at least $400 today.

Now, a 44-cent first-class stamp will send a letter from one end of the country to the other in an average of one to three days. We all remember times when something went wrong and a letter to Long Beach, Wash., ended up taking a detour to Long Beach, N.Y., or Long Beach, Calif.

But by and large, the U.S. Postal Service is a miracle of efficiency and reliability. You have only to try mailing a postcard from Italy or Argentina to have this fact be brought forcefully home - in all likelihood, your postcard home will never arrive. Our American traditions of convenient, reliable and inexpensive mail are remarkable. There is much about the Postal Service that is worth preserving.

Still, real and substantive changes must be made to ensure the future of the U.S. mail. In a time when e-mail is virtually free, bills are paid by electronic transfer, and many private competitors skim off the lucrative parcel-delivery business, the Postal Service must continue looking for ways to run more like a private business. Congress must facilitate these changes.

Small post offices are vital centerpieces in the small towns and rural communities of the Pacific Northwest. Closing them would be very hurtful and should be avoided. They are a good part of what knits our nation together, a vital ingredient in the American social contract.

But the Postal Service needs to be somewhat freed to make logical decisions with regards to rates, Saturday service and other matters. As it now stands, the Postal Service gets the blame but Congress retains the power for genuine changes that fit the modern business world.

A century from now, "What's in the mail?" will doubtless have an entirely different meaning than it does today. Our country will be better if the Postal Service is still part of the answer.

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