USPS is hanging on by a thread
Amidst the coronavirus storm, it can be hard to identify which aspects of American life should be tossed into the lifeboat of priorities. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is one of them. It is the largest postal service in the world. Yet like thousands of individual Americans battling COVID-19, its health is in danger. It may not survive through the end of the year.
The U.S. mail service predates the U.S. Constitution itself, which expressly empowers Congress “[t]o establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” The first post office sprung up in the colonies in 1639, when Massachusetts enacted legislation ordering that overseas letters pass through Fairbanks Tavern in Boston. Decades later, the King of England approved the office of postmaster general for America, a position held by Benjamin Franklin, who in 1753 initiated efforts to establish an intra-colony postal system. In 1775, the first Continental Congress appointed a committee to establish a postal system, resolving that “the present critical situation of the colonies renders it highly desirable that ways and means should be devised for the speedy and secure conveyance of Intelligence from one end of the Continent to the other.”
In 1792, President George Washington signed into law the first Postal Service Act, which established the first postage rates and post roads and created the United States Post Office Department as part of the federal government. In 1829, the postmaster general was made a member of the president’s Cabinet. Free delivery began in 1863.
Zip codes were added in 1963 to make sorting and delivery easier. In 1970, Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act, which transformed the Post Office Department into a government-owned corporation called the U.S. Postal Service. It is directed by a board of nine governors, including the postmaster general, each of whom is appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. As private competitors entered the mail delivery market, Express Mail was introduced in 1977. In 1982, Congress halted direct subsidies to the USPS, although rate funding remains for nonprofit organizations and small publishers.
Congress gave the USPS a monopoly on domestic letter delivery under a group of statutes known as the Private Express Statutes. In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, “[t]he postal monopoly . . . prevents private competitors from offering service on low-cost routes at prices below those of the Postal Service, while leaving the Service with high-cost routes and insufficient means to fulfill its mandate of providing uniform rates and service to patrons in all areas, including those that are remote or less populated.” The agency is required by law to deliver mail to every address in the country six days a week and it is not allowed to hire private companies for assistance.
In other words, the USPS exists to make sure every American has access to basic mail service. It’s that simple.
According to the Government Accountability Office, “USPS’s overall financial condition is deteriorating and unsustainable.” Its expenses outpace its revenues. At the end of fiscal year 2018, it had $143 billion in total unfunded liabilities and debt. Due to the coronavirus, mail volume is down by a third from last year. In addition, the agency is financially hamstrung by legislation passed in 2006 that requires it to set aside $5.5 billion per year in prepaid health benefits for retired employees. The current postmaster general, Megan Brennan, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee on April 9 that the postal service could run out of money by September, “threatening our ability to operate.” The board has asked for $75 billion in the next coronavirus bill.
Yet President Trump has threatened to veto any COVID-19 legislation that includes bailout funding for the USPS, even though it is considered an “essential service” during a pandemic. Among other things, the postal service delivers prescription drugs to people who desperately need them, medical supplies and protective gear to first responders and hospital personnel, materials for conducting the 2020 Census and, most vitally for the sustainability of American democracy, mail-in ballots come November.
Why is Trump taking this draconian stance?
Well, the president has claimed — inaccurately, according to his own task force — that Amazon has pulled a “scam” on the postal service, costing it “massive amounts of money.” And he believes the USPS is partly to blame. “Should be charging MUCH MORE!,” he maintains.
President Trump is absolutely correct that the U.S. Postal Service needs restructuring and a viable business model. It is a creature of Congress and Congress might need to step in again with revised legislation. (For that very reason, the USPS is not on equal footing with private mail delivery companies like Federal Express. It cannot be expected to compete as one.)
But now is not the time to play hardball with an agency as central to what “makes America great.” Nearly three months have passed since the United States confirmed its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 21. Much of the economy has since been shut down due to the grave dangers of infection. Upwards of 600,000 federal postal workers continue working each day to deliver mail during the pandemic, with hundreds already testing positive for the virus.
America’s greatness stems in part from its noble traditions. Since the founding of the republic, those traditions have included a federal postal service whose mission is to serve the American public — not generate revenue.
America’s greatness also depends on the ability of each eligible voter to participate in democracy on Nov. 4. The lethal coronavirus has made the USPS a key to making that happen. The president of all people should be its champion right now.
Kimberly Wehle is a former assistant United States attorney and visiting professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. She is a CBS News legal analyst, a BBC News contributor, and the author of the book, “How to Read the Constitution and Why,” as well as the forthcoming “What You Need to Know About Voting and Why” due to be published in June. You can follow her on twitter @kim_wehle.
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