Here's a sad tale to tie into Americans: The United States Postal Service, which has been a national institution since Benjamin Franklin was installed in 1775 as the first postmaster general, may be going, going and perhaps gone -- for good -- by year end.

One legislator says if Congress doesn't act and do something about the post office's problems, the agency could literally close later this year.

Congress has been on recess, but USPS problems are among the first matters of business Tuesday upon reconvene in Washington. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the agency's predicament on Tuesday.

Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the post office, told the New YorkTimes the situation is dire and that if we don't react in a smart, appropriate way, the postal service could literally close this year. 

U.S. postmaster general Patrick R. Donahoe has also said the post office situation is extremely serious, and that if Congress doesn't act the agency will default on a Sept. 30 payment of $5.5 billion due to the federal government. If the postal service misses its $5.5 billion payment due Sept. 30 the agency will technically be in default, but officials say it will not cause immediate shut down.

It wouldn't be until late this year or early next year that the agency runs out of money to pay employees and operate delivery vehicles that a shutdown might occur if nothing is done. The postal service's deficit will likely eclipse $9 billion this year, and the agency is trying to move fast to shore up its money-losing business, avoiding default in late September.

Donohoe and the USPS want to eliminate Saturday mail delivery, close as many as 3,700 postal locations, and lay off 120,000 workers even though the agency has a no-layoffs clause in union contracts.

But it needs help from Congress to solve those problems, and even then fast-declining business due to Internet and costs that can't be cut fast enough mean that the agency likely has a limited future -- and it may only be a matter of time. After all, we know how difficult it is these days to get Congress to agree on anything involving money.

So don't hold your breath.

It's a sad truth to face, considering is an arguably one of the American institutions, one that has run, according to the famous saying, regardless of rain, snow, or sleet.

But money will get a company in trouble every time, and with declining business, costs that can't be cut quick enough and Congressional limits on postage increases in place, the long-term future of the post office is in suddently in serious doubt. Sooner or later, it's probably going away -- and maybe sooner than most anybody saw coming.

Already the USPS has been in the process of eliminating Saturday mail delivery. Now, by attempting to close more than 3,700 local retail outlets across the country and eliminate as much as one-fifth of the post office workforce, while getting further help from Congress on the $5.5 billion payment due at the end of September that it cannot pay, the beginning of the end may be in sight.

The agency doesn't just need help in one area -- it needs help all across the board.

That's a sad thing, since the post office is one of the most reliable, best services one can find in America. Still today, a stamp costing just 44 cents to mail a letter first class that gets there most every time remains one of the best deals one can find in America.

Also, USPS service is among the most reliable of any quasi-government organizations in this land. It's just that nobody needs the post office like they used to.

Chalk this one up to another unfortunate fatality of 21st century progress, but go ahead and face the fact: The USPS as we have known it for so many years appears to be going, going and nearly gone.

Our customer's habits have made it clear that they no longer require a physical post office to conduct most of their postal business, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said this summer.

Currently the post office has 31,000 outlets, including local offices, branches and stations. That's down from 38,000 a decade ago. In recent years, however, as first-class mail has moved to the Internet due to online bill pay and other advancements, and as mail advertising has moved to the Internet, the post office has seen a rapid decline in its business.

Last year the post office lost $8 billion. This year the agency will lose more than $9 billion.

The cuts currently being debated are the beginning of the end, and they will start in rural areas where more locations don't have the required business volume for sustainability.

Donahoe suggests communities losing post offices might get smaller, authorized stations, or licensed local vendors to provide traditional postal services. In other words, the post office is increasingly privatizing its business, brokering out services of its retail centers. That strategy has been under way for years now, successfully in many locations. Now, it is the path the post office takes to serving communities with physical locations.

But it's clear that closing retail outlets is not enough to save the post office, since many people just don't need the post office like the used to, in spite of its value and reliability. That's why the post office has been sharply reducing its staff in recent years. That's why the post office wants approval from Congress to eliminate Saturday home mail delivery. And, that's why the post office wants relief from a requirement to make an annual $5.5 billion payment to fund future retiree health benefits.

Some will argue the post office has a long-term future, that it's all about successful evolution. But nobody foresaw how quickly America's reliance upon mail delivery would evaporate. They said the Internet would change our world, and for the longest time, we didn't know what that meant.

Now, with the post office at least, we are beginning to see.

It would be sad to see it go, of course, since the post office has been an integral part of many American communities over the years. The meeting place. The place of undeterred reliability. The backbone. But it's happening, whether we want to face that reality or not.

For so many years, we thought it was neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet that could shut down the post office. But all along, it wasn't the weather we should have been worried about. It was the Internet.