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The time has come when the U.S. Postal Service can no longer stonewall critics of its continuing monopoly over delivery of most forms of advertising mail. It needs to open the monopoly question to searching and honest inquiry.

Whether the forum is a USPS rulemaking proceeding, as the Coalition for the Relaxation of the Private Express Statutes has requested, a Congressional committee or a blue-ribbon task force of citizens and experts, the issue should be aired out fully.

We say this knowing the obvious self-interest involved in the businesses behind the coalition-advertising mailers who want lower rates and alternate delivery companies who make no bones about wanting a crack at Postal Service business that's now off limits to them.

Mailers send about $500 million of business through alternative delivery companies, even though such companies are allowed by present law to deliver only address-specific mail of 24 pages or more, such as magazines and catalogs, and ride-along material, or non-address-specific saturation mailings. That's just a drop compared to the $10.5 billion in third-class mail delivered through the Postal Service last year.

"We need more volume," admitted coalition member Mike Trost, president of Marietta, Ga.-based Publishers Express. Many mailers, meanwhile, are fed up with postal rate hikes that saddle them with higher percentage increases than first-class mailers get.

Neither mail advertisers nor alternate delivery companies are going to loosen the monopoly if their chief rationale is naked self-interest, however. How many members of Congress will rush to improve the lot of "junk mailers" if breaking the monopoly means higher first-class stamps for their constituents back home? If changes are to be made-and senior USPS executives concede change may be needed-it should come after a thorough inspection of who wins, who loses and why there is a net benefit to the economy and the citizenry.

That's a big task. Let's get started.

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