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Playing politics with the USPS

Playing politics with the USPS
© Bonnie Cash

The United States Postal Service (USPS) was the first government agency. It is the only agency mentioned in the Constitution. Until 1970, the Postmaster General (PMG) was a member of the president’s Cabinet. The PMG provided the patronage jobs – and the post offices – the president needed to keep job seekers at bay. 

Things changed in 1970. The USPS became a new sort of agency, remaining central to government, yet separate from it — a quasi-governmental corporation, one that would become formally removed from presidential interference (actually to the relief of most presidents). 

The new law that established the USPS as a quasi-governmental agency created a governing board of nine members appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, supposedly adding a useful regulatory buffer between the Postal Service itself and the public. The board has the responsibility to select the postmaster general who, as CEO of the organization, is accountable to the board. All members of the board are from the corporate sector, including the postmaster general. There is currently no public service person on the board. But the Postal Service is a public entity.

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The law also established the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) of four members and a chairman all appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The changes in postal leadership seems to have worked. Polls in recent years show the Postal Service to be the most popular government agency, holding the highest confidence among the public it serves.

The changes were designed to make the USPS more like a private corporation by adopting best practices from the corporate sector and, importantly, keeping it out of election politics. It worked pretty well. The service was reliable, and though always close to a financial red line, it put away some $80 billion to cover costs of employee retirement and health care. Other federal government agencies are not required to support employee benefits directly from their operating budget revenues. The USPS figure is more than twice the average rate of retirement funds set aside in private sector corporations. It has long been well-managed despite underfunding and increased competition from other media and package delivery companies. 

Now, after 50 years of efficient and largely independent operations, President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE is bringing politics back into the Postal Service. By appointing three of his political supporters to the seven-member Postal Board (there are currently three vacancies) he brought the service back into the world of electoral politics. The three were sufficient to appoint a Trump supporter to the postmaster general position

This move turned the reform of 1970 on its head. The one Democrat on the board, David Williams, resigned in protest. Williams, whose career includes appointments as inspector general of the Postal Service, Treasury and other agencies, resigned over partisan control of the Postal Service by the three Trump appointees, a move directly opposite of the purposes of the 1970 reform. The remaining board members have effectively abolished the clear intent of reform act. Williams knew the 1970 reform and what it intended. President Trump and his appointees may but they certainly are not carrying out the purposes or intent of the reform. They are taking the service back to its pre-1970 days and inserting presidential politics in the service.

President Trump made a bold and legally questionable move. The president now has a platform to deliver his view that mail-in voting is a political hazard that needs to be discouraged and maybe stopped. The president is worried that increased mail balloting due to the COVID-19 virus will favor his opponent. States control ballots and can offer mail balloting if they like. There is little the president can do about that, but mail-in ballots are delivered only by the Postal Service.

A few strokes of the presidential pen have turned the Postal Service inside out and sent it back to the pre-1970 reform days of presidential control. This poses a risk to one of the foundations of our democracy

A. Lee Fritschler served as chair of the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission from 1979-1981. He is professor emeritus at the Schar School at George Mason University.