Outdated global postal system hurts US manufacturers

Outdated global postal system hurts US manufacturers
© Getty Images

Last week, delegates from 192 countries met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to discuss the future of the global postal network. They met in the headquarters of the African Union in a building designed, built and financed by China.

It was an all-too-fitting setting given how much China benefits from an outdated postal system at the expense of manufacturers in America, and it is an urgent reminder of Congress’ need to fix the unfairness in the system.

ADVERTISEMENT

International postal operators came together in 1874 to establish the Universal Postal Union (UPU) — the second-oldest international organization worldwide — to create a system for exchanging mail between countries.

To make the process more affordable for mailers, they agreed in 1969 to a system of subsidized rates for shipping letter post items with the cheapest rates going to the poorest countries like Botswana, Gabon and China. These rates are called “terminal dues,” and despite a lack of oversight, they were not much of a problem for decades.

When the UPU agreed to the terminal dues system almost 50 years ago, they decided to treat items up to 4.4 pounds as “letter post” because nobody was expected to ship commercial packets through the mail.

Things look very different in 2018: e-commerce is massive, and innovative products are easier than ever for unscrupulous actors to counterfeit. But one thing hasn’t changed: China still gets the Botswana-level rates through the UPU even though it is far from a “poor” country today.

These days, the best way to get counterfeit goods, and even illegal drugs, into the United States is through international mail. By charging less for these international shipments under the UPU terminal dues agreement, our own postal service subsidizes these shipments to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

For manufacturers in America, this can mean that it’s cheaper for Chinese competitors (and counterfeiters) to ship products to customers located anywhere in the United States than for U.S. companies to ship their products across the street.

One such U.S. manufacturer, Mighty Mug, discovered this unfairness when the company’s founder and CEO, Jayme Smaldone, ordered a counterfeit version of his Mighty Mug product from China. The Chinese product shipped for less than it would have cost Smaldone to send his own product to a nearby friend or relative.

To make matters even worse, the UPU agreement still does not fully require advanced electronic data for shipments, which means counterfeits and drugs are impossible to track. According to our own State Department, the United States has not even affirmed the UPU agreements for the past decade. 

Thankfully, a growing number of public officials have recognized this problem, including Reps. Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantBlood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure What's causing the congressional 'Texodus'? House Ethics Committee reviewing two GOP lawmakers over campaign finance MORE (R-Texas) and Ralph Abraham (R-La.); Sens. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyUN Security Council to meet after Turkey launches Syria offensive Trump faces growing GOP revolt on Syria To win the federal paid family leave debate, allow states to lead the way MORE (R-La.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters Youth climate activists get Miami Beach to declare climate emergency MORE (R-Fla.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes Senate fails to override Trump veto over emergency declaration MORE (R-Ohio), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonAmbassador Gordon Sondland arrives on Capitol Hill for testimony in impeachment inquiry GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Sondland could provide more clues on Ukraine controversy MORE (R-Wis.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump Senate GOP braces for impeachment trial 'roller coaster' Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show MORE (R-Okla.); and most recently, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE.

So how do we fix it? The first thing the Senate can do is pass Sen. Portman’s Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, which would close the customs loophole and require advanced tracking data.

This will make it easier to track counterfeit goods and dangerous products entering the United States and stop their flow at the source.

Then, because it is unlikely that the United States wins this fight through the one-country, one-vote system of the UPU, manufacturers also need the administration and Congress to work together to move to a fair system of so-called “self-declared rates,” in which the United States, not the UPU, sets the postage rates for products coming from countries like China. 

The next few months are a critical time for fixing this growing problem. Manufacturers look forward to working with the administration and Capitol Hill to get tough on China.

Jay Timmons is president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and chairman of the board of the NAM's Manufacturing Institute.