5 Myths About the Postal Crisis
The Postal Service is the nation’s favorite federal agency, and even Trump seemed to realize he’d overstepped; he soon tweeted “SAVE THE POST OFFICE!”
But people aren’t wrong to worry: The Postal Service really does have big problems, and it really will be central to the election this year. The problems just aren’t the ones everyone is panicking about.
As Congress comes back this weekend for a special session to address the mail crisis, there’s a risk it will scramble to patch some holes, and even spend billions of dollars, without fixing the real underlying issues. What’s just hype—and what should we actually worry about? Here’s what’s really going on with the 240-year-old agency.
Myth 1: There’s a Trumpian plot afoot to cripple the post office, in plain sight.
Since Trump’s comments on Fox, the Internet has lit up with stories mail collection boxes being locked or trucked away and postal sorting machines being taken out of service “to prevent Americans from voting.”
What these anecdotes ignore is that USPS is always making adjustments to run an efficient mail system. People move, mail flows change. Mailboxes might seem like permanent fixtures, but they’ve never stayed in place forever.
Between 1985 and 2011, the number of blue mail collection boxes in Seattle was reduced from 400 to 160. Nationwide, 14,000 mail collection boxes were removed by the USPS between 2012 and 2017, according to the Postal Service Inspector General. Were Presidents Bush I, Clinton, and Obama also trying to rig the vote? The question answers itself.
The same holds true for sorting machines. As far back as 2012, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said the Post Office needed to reduce its paper mail sorting network to respond to the decreased mail volume. Which the USPS has been doing for years. And in the 2018 election the Postal Service was given high scores by its Inspector General for its delivery of election mail.
Trump might be trying to cast doubt on the election for his own reasons, but if this were a plot to sway the actual results via the Postal Service, it wouldn’t make much sense. Studies show voting by mail does not benefit one party or the other. Members of the military stationed overseas, hardly a bastion of rabid liberal voters, vote by mail. And if the President wanted to win electoral votes, why would he bother to have mailboxes pilfered from a solidly blue state like Oregon?
Myth 2: Actually, everything is fine.
The fact is, we just don’t know how well USPS’ operations are working—and that itself is one of the issues. There are anecdotes aplenty of breakdowns. Individuals not getting mail for a week at a time, instead of six days per week per the law. Your author had a parcel handed to the Postal Service by a Miami retailer who paid for 2-day delivery. The box took 16 days to arrive in Washington, D.C. (Thankfully, the contents were a mushroom growing kit rather than critical prescription drugs—or the live chicks that have been arriving dead in Maine.)
The new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, himself acknowledged his new rules limiting overtime and requiring letter carriers to get out on their delivery routes sooner have had “unintended consequences.”
But we also have mailing industry experts saying that the postal system is not being crippled. One mailing data company told the Washington Post, “There doesn’t appear to be a systemic problem.” Another mail analytics company leader said “we have not seen a systemic degradation in service.” Additionally, representatives of for-profit and not-for-profit mailers recently told the Wall Street Journal they saw nothing to be concerned about in DeJoy’s actions.
So is there a problem, or not? That’s where the Postal Service’s transparency issues come in. Much of the recent freakout could have been avoided if the USPS publicly reported its trendline data on network rationalization, mail speeds and delivery reliability. The Postal Service does issue all sorts of reports on its operations and provides data-rich briefings for mailers. But the agency isn’t required to—and doesn’t bother to—share its topline data in formats that are easy to digest. It’s very hard for citizens, the media or even congressional overseers to see whether service is getting better or worse, and whether the USPS was removing unusual numbers of mail processing machines and collection boxes, or just making responsible adjustments.
Myth 3: Louis DeJoy is a Trump stooge sent in to cripple the USPS.
The postmaster general has been tarred as a stooge of President Trump—a GOP fundraiser whom Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has blasted as having “no prior postal experience.”
In fact, DeJoy has decades of experience in the logistics industry, and the Postal Service is deeply enmeshed in the nation’s larger logistics system. USPS pays FedEx to fly mail; privates shippers pay USPS to carry parcels the final mile. DeJoy has spent years very successfully navigating the business of moving stuff from place to place. Contrast that record with the last two postmaster generals. They were good people who rose through the ranks of the USPS to lead the organization, but neither could arrest the Post Office’s long slide into crises. It makes sense to bring in a private-sector leader.
Treating DeJoy as the tip of a Trumpy tentacle also ignores the fact that Trump has no direct control over DeJoy. Unlike other major agency heads, the postmaster general is not appointed by the President. He is selected by the USPS Board of Governors, whose six members include four Republicans and two Democrats. Yes, Trump appointed all these governors, but the Senate approved them all by bipartisan votes, and they have seven-year terms.
But what about that Friday night massacre, you may ask, where DeJoy cleaned house and surrounded himself with toadies? It didn’t happen. DeJoy, like the previous postmaster general, rearranged some boxes at the top of the USPS’ organization chart and mostly moved longtime USPS executives from one position to another.
So far only thing DeJoy has done that was remotely Trumpy was ask for a rate hike on parcels. For a couple years now the president has been claiming USPS is losing money on parcels. (Which is either true or false, depending on how you do the accounting. The law on how USPS does this is vague.) DeJoy has moved to raise parcel prices—but only a little, and nowhere near the quadrupling of prices that the president demanded. And DeJoy’s action looks all the more banal when one realizes that private-sector shippers already have added their own COVID-19 surcharge to deliveries.
Myth 4: The USPS needs more money to handle all the election ballots it’s about to deliver—and Trump is blocking it.
Congressional Democrats may well force a vote this weekend to give the Postal Service between $10 billion and $25 billion. They tried to do this in early March, as well, claiming that the agency was going to go broke due to a plunge in mail volume caused by COVID-19.
For his part, Trump last week said Democrats “want $25 billion, billion, for the Post Office. Now they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.” And Trump said he wouldn’t let the USPS have the money.
Both sides are talking nonsense.
The Postal Service is cash flush. It has $13 billion in its Treasury account, more than it has had in years. The flood of parcels into the Post Office during COVID-19 has lifted the USPS’ third-quarter revenues higher than last year by $550 million. The CARES Act, signed by Trump in late March, also gave the agency an additional $10 billon borrowing line from the Treasury.
The Postal Service also doesn’t need an emergency appropriation from Congress to carry election ballots. The president made a “wet, hot mess” here. Rather, it is state and local elections officials who need a heap of money to purchase postage for the surge in absentee voting and to tighten up election security.
Myth debunked, there are two real perils. First, the coronavirus is hitting postal workers. If the virus surges in November, when flu and other bugs begin to proliferate, the mail really could slow down. And second, while the USPS has more than enough mail processing capacity to handle an election, voting by mail can still get tripped up. Many states and localities allow voters to request an absentee ballot be mailed to them just days before the election. This raises the specter of the USPS getting a massive crush of ballots dropped on them late and with little notice.
This is exactly what happened in New York in June, when the Postal Service had 30,000 absentee ballots dumped on it the day before the primary. To avoid a repeat of this disaster, before DeJoy’s arrival the USPS reached out to states to urge them to get ballots in the mail early so as not to disenfranchise voters. The USPS later warned against putting ballots dropped in the mail at the last second with marketing mail postage, which can take up to 10 days to deliver.
But there is only so much the Postal Service can do. The ball is mostly in the court of state officials and election workers, who need to do all they can to flatten the election mail curve. It’s also up to voters: Anyone who intends to vote by mail can help the USPS by requesting a ballot as soon as legally possible and returning it immediately, either through the mail or by putting it in an elections drop box.
Myth 5: Congress will fix it this weekend.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called the chamber back from vacation. The Senate has a hearing Friday, and the House of Representatives will put DeJoy and Mike Duncan, chairman of the USPS Board of Governors, on the hot seats on Monday.
DeJoy has already halted the various logistical and cost-saving moves that drew the ire of the left. So what exactly will Congress do?
At the moment, probably not much. It is an election year, and neither party—especially not the Democrats—shows any inclination to make the hard choices that would set the USPS up for success in the 21st century.
The Postal Service runs deficits more often than not, and has more than $150 billion in unfunded pension, employee health care benefits and other obligations. The USPS’ mail volume is down 33 percent since 2006, and the agency’s main source of revenue—paper mail—is falling even more sharply. The Post Office’s massive fleet of delivery vehicles desperately needs to be replaced, which will cost billions of dollars. More than 400 mail trucks have burst into flames since 2014.
Congress expects the agency to control its costs but has limited its capacity to do that. It insists
USPS deliver paper mail six days per week, despite falling demand. Legislators object when USPS tries to close an underutilized post office or an unneeded sorting facility. Congress requires the Post Office to use an almost entirely unionized workforce. Compensation costs, retiree benefits and workers compensation—compose 75 percent of operating costs—and the unions, understandably resist cuts. Congress also forbids the USPS from raising the prices on most of its products by more than the rate of inflation (which hovers around 2 percent).
Most likely the next few days will feature Democrats bellowing from the dais, and Republicans trying to get DeJoy and Duncan to explain that they are not Trump “minions” subverting democracy. The House will pass a bill along party lines to prohibit USPS from doing anything that might negatively affect mail delivery, and to hand money to the USPS with few strings. The Senate will ignore the legislation, and might take up the matter in the next COVID-19 relief bill.
And the U.S. Postal Service will struggle on.