In the digital age, "snail mail" is no longer as critical as it once was. And the Postal Service, like everything else, must change to meet the times.

But the current crisis facing our national postal system — and by extension the rest of the country, no matter how we pay our bills or get our magazines — has essentially been manufactured by Congress. So Congress needs to fix it. Now.

It's true that the Internet has transformed the way significant numbers of Americans communicate with each other and pay their bills (although one-third of Americans, most of them poor and the elderly, do not use the Internet.) In addition, the recession has contributed substantially to the steep decline in the volume of first-class mail in recent years. But neither factor is the main reason why the Postal Service is running in the red.

Here's why: In 2006, in an obvious attempt at union busting, Congress passed a law requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund 75 years of employee health-care benefits in just a decade, something that no other government agency (including Congress) must do. Pre-funding costs $5.5 billion per year. Last year's deficit: $5.1 billion. See a pattern?

The same law also prevents the Postal Service from undertaking entrepreneurial endeavors like simple banking, offering copy or fax services or opening an Internet café — anything that might allow it to compete with private delivery services. Is that what conservatives mean by a "free market"?

A bill passed in the U.S. Senate last week with a bipartisan majority of 62-37 is deeply flawed, but it does postpone the closing of 3,700 rural post offices and 252 regional sorting centers — and the ending of Saturday delivery — that was scheduled to begin May 15. Most importantly, it would restructure the overpayments and release $11 billion to fund buyouts for veteran employees and develop a more entrepreneurial strategy.

The legislation comes not a moment too soon: The wholesale slashing of service would send the Postal Service into a death spiral from which it could not recover. It would result in a 10 percent decline in mail volume that would wipe out any savings — taking with it 200,000 well-paying jobs, many of them held by veterans and minorities.

And that would be just the beginning: the ripple effects would go much further, to 8 million more jobs that depend on a well-functioning postal service — including jobs at competitors that use U.S. mail carriers for packages on the "the last mile" in out-of-the-way, unprofitable locations.

The House of Representatives should pass the bill and President Obama should sign it. But that must be just the beginning of a new approach toward a rational approach to the mail as, not a business, but the vital government service and civic institution it should remain. Privatizing the Postal Service will deliver this nation to second-class status and do it posthaste. n