If Elvis is still alive, he may have to update his famous song "Return to Sender."
Maybe, "Return to Depositor?"
The U.S. Postal Service is mulling ways to help the government deliver benefits payments electronically and eliminate checks.
"We are still deciding on what our level of interest is," said Stephen Kearney, the service's treasurer.
A 1996 law requires the federal government to send all government payments and benefits, except tax refunds, electronically by Jan. 1, 1999. Taxpayers will save $100 million a year over five years in postage and check production costs, according to Treasury officials.
The Postal Service has a vested financial interest in the initiative because it delivers almost half of the 850 million Social Security and other payments made by Treasury each year.
Being relieved of those 400 million pieces of mail-worth an estimated $150 million in revenue-would make a small dent in the nearly 100 billion pieces of first-class mail carried annually by the Postal Service, but "it's important to us," Mr. Kearney said.
Treasury officials find the Postal Service's 39,000 locations nationwide and their broad customer base very attractive. And post offices could be a great way to reach the 10 million benefits recipients who do not have bank accounts.
Despite jokes about the inefficiency of the Postal Service, Mr. Kearney said "we think we are a very trusted institution in the United States."
Ideas have ranged from letting financial institutions provide banking services at post offices to sending benefits directly to accounts at the Postal Service.
Bankers oppose the entry of the Postal Service into the financial services business unless it works with a banking partner, according to William H. Phillips, the American Bankers Association's policy development director. The Treasury Department insists it will not cut banks out of the picture, but Mr. Phillips said he would not feel comfortable until the department releases its electronic funds transfer proposal in mid-July.
Post offices serve as savings banks in many countries around the world, and Americans have banked at the post office before.
In 1910, Congress authorized the then Post Office Department to act as a federally guaranteed savings bank in order to draw money out of hiding and attract the savings of immigrants who had banked at post offices in their home countries.
From 1929 to 1934, deposits at post offices rose to $1.2 billion from $153 million as confidence in banks ebbed. They peaked in 1947 at nearly $3.4 billion. But competition from commercial banks and other types of investments forced the Postal Service to end the system in 1967.
Some observers like the Treasury's idea to use the Postal Service.
Margot Saunders, managing attorney of the National Consumer Law Center in Washington, testified before Congress recently that only federally insured financial institutions should be permitted to electronically deliver government benefits. Yet she named the Postal Service as a possible exception.
Unlike check cashers, "the U.S. Postal Service has no history of abusing people," she said. "And they have more outlets than anyone."
"If you ask people what they think of the post office, they don't rate it too highly," said George G. Kaufman, a financial expert at Loyola University in Chicago. "And you want it to manage money?"