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Trump's Attack on the Postal Service Now Endangers Democracy

Asked to defend his attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, Trump has just lied about them.

The truth is that the USPS’s problems were largely created by Congress. (Photo: Ron Doke/Flickr/cc)

The truth is that the USPS’s problems were largely created by Congress. (Photo: Ron Doke/Flickr/cc)

Let's say you're in charge of a mission-critical government agency facing an expected nationwide surge in demand in three months or less while struggling with an existing national emergency.

Would you:

—Institute a reduction of overtime and a hiring freeze while signaling your tolerance for slower delivery of crucial services to customers?

—Radically reorganize your operation, assigning new duties to inexperienced managers and removing the most experienced executives without explanation?

—Describe your actions as an "operational pivot" and pick fights with the very people you're required to report to?

No? Then you're plainly not as qualified to run the U.S. Postal Service as Louis DeJoy, the millionaire political fundraiser bristling with conflicts of interest who has been placed in charge of the mail by President Trump.

DeJoy has taken over just as the postal service must gear up to handle a surge in vote-by-mail ballots filed by voters wary of reporting in person to their polling places because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Instead of focusing on what should be Job One, he's performed as a one-man wrecking crew. Residents coast-to-coast have noticed that mail deliveries have gotten slower.

In a well-reported survey, Ellie Rushing of the Philadelphia Inquirer documented "some residents going upwards of three weeks without packages and letters, leaving them without medication, paychecks, and bills."

Where's the mail? It's "piling up in offices, unscanned and unsorted" while overwhelmed postal workers make do without vacation replacements.

Here's betting that many of my readers have experienced a change in mail service, for the worse. At my house, deliveries have been arriving later and later in the day—on one occasion the mail arrived shortly before nightfall, an eight-hour delay that hadn't happened before in 20 years at my address.

These developments have properly raised concerns about whether the U.S. Postal Service will be able—or willing—to manage the burden of mail-in voting this fall.

There's even an unconfirmed report, via the Capitol Forum, that the Postal Service is contemplating charging states the full 55-cent first class rate to mail ballots to voters instead of the customary preferential 20-cent rate — tripling the cost of ballot mailings for states.

DeJoy is the first postmaster general in 20 years to not be promoted from within the Postal Service. But he has a lot of experience as head of companies that have competed with the USPS and as an investor in the system's rivals, including UPS.

He has denied that his management changes have anything to do with hampering mail delivery before the election, but some of his moves are indistinguishable from steps one would take to hamstring the service. Most recently, he reshuffled more than 30 top officials, an action that inevitably will produce turmoil from top to bottom.

And if the Postal Service can't adequately handle the election, it's democracy that will pay the price.

We've written at length about Trump's infantile hostility toward the USPS. By some reckonings, it has something to do with the service's contract to deliver packages for Amazon, which was founded by Jeff Bezos, whose ownership of the Washington Post, a consistent Trump critic, sticks in Trump's craw. Trump maintains that the contract is a sweetheart deal for Amazon, but there isn't a speck of evidence for that.

Trump has pushed to privatize the Postal Service even thought privatization would almost certainly mean crummy service and immense price increases, making it the surest route to turning the public's documented public admiration for the Postal Service into public scorn.

Asked to defend his attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, Trump has just lied about them. Over and over again.

These attacks are part and parcel of the standard Republican approach to public services. Typically, that boils down to "making government work like a business"—in other words, to justify government operations and their very existence on a profit-and-loss basis. If they can't make a go of things on those terms, get rid of them.

The problem with this argument is that, pretty much by definition, government can't and shouldn't be run "like a business." Its responsibility is to provide services to people who can't afford to pay for them, to invest infrastructure when private businesses won't (even though business will reap the ultimate benefits), and to perform other duties that can't be costed out.

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That's why the cry to make government work like a business is always selective. Republicans don't demand that the military work like a business, because if it did, we wouldn't have armed forces. We would never have built Hoover Dam or the interstate highway system.

The GOP cry is typically directed at services for the poor. The ridiculous campaign to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipient has been consistently explained as an effort to make Medicaid more fiscally "efficient." Cuts in food stamps are routinely justified by the inability of the United States to afford to keep food on the table for low-income Americans.

Republican-endorsed cutbacks in public services were memorably described by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) in 2017 as "cartoonishly malicious."

He was referring then to a GOP proposal to strip minimum essential benefits such as hospitalization and prescription coverage from health plans qualified under the Affordable Care Act—"I can picture someone twirling their mustache as they drafted it in their secret Capitol lair," he said at the time.

But the epithet applies much more broadly in the Trump era, during which Republicans have never lifted a finger to protect public goods and programs such as healthcare, food stamps, housing assistance, and more recently aid for American families whose household budgets have been blown to bits by the coronavirus outbreak.

In fact, the term is too mild. The assault on public services has moved well beyond cartoonishness and reached the level of pure, unadulterated malice.

The Postal Service has become a major target of these people. Let's revisit the bill of particulars.

In an internal memo to postal workers DeJoy issued shortly after his appointment in May, he wrote of the "journey we must take together, for the health and stability of the Postal Service" and attributed some of its problems to "soaring costs."

DeJoy didn't mention at all the single most important driver of the Postal Service's annual deficit: the onerous requirement, enacted in 2006, that the service pre-fund its retiree healthcare costs, a mandate not imposed on any other government agency or private corporation.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank, the mandate costs the USPS more than $4 billion a year. Without this burden, the institute says, "the Post Office would have reported operating profits in each of the last six years." Instead, "This extraordinary mandate created a financial 'crisis' that has been used to justify harmful service cuts and even calls for postal privatization."

It's true that first class mail, which was once the post office's bread and butter, has been on a long-term decline. First class mail volume peaked at 103.7 billion pieces annually in 2001. As Americans switched to automatic bill payment, email and e-vites, volume fell 47% by fiscal 2019 to 54.9 billion.

Parcel deliveries have taken up some of the slack, rising in price, revenue and share of total Postal Service income over the last few years. But delivering packages is also more expensive than delivering letters.

Parcels require additional heavier trucks, more personnel and more fuel. Although the Postal Service is collecting more revenue from packages than it used to, that still is not fully compensating for the falloff in letter revenue.

That might be a major concern if the Postal Service were a private company, but it's not. It's a government service, and among the virtues of a government service is the service it provides to all citizens no matter where they live, even if it can't be done profitably.

Early in the Trump administration, his Office of Management and Budget described privatizing the USPS in terms of sedulous glee: "A privatized Postal Service would have a substantially lower cost structure, be able to adapt to changing customer needs and make business decisions free from political interference."

In other words, it would cut pay and staffing, abandoning customers and communities far from the beaten path. This is how free-market businesses such as cable operators work—they serve dense, high-population areas but keep remote places that are costly and difficult to serve out of their business plans.

We already know how private mail services work. UPS and FedEx provide the necessary examples. To mail a first class letter—a birthday card to your grandmother, perhaps—costs 55 cents no matter where you live and where it's going. The minimum charge from FedEx is $11 and at UPS $30.18, according to their websites.

Mailing an item in a U.S. Postal Service medium flat-rate box costs $15.05, anywhere in the U.S. At UPS it's $30.81, and at FedEx $34.50. The Postal Service will carry its flat-rate large box (24 inches by 12 inches by 3 inches) anywhere in the U.S., from Key West, Fla., to Anchorage, for $21.10. The same box, carried from California to southern Michigan, will cost $36.59 on UPS and $34.50 in FedEx. But send it to Anchorage, and the price jumps to $49.39 on UPS and $52.81 on FedEx, according to their websites.

This is the aspect of universal mail service that Trump and his acolytes overlook. The Constitution placed the responsibility for the mail in the hands of the post office, purportedly at Benjamin Franklin's urging, because the Founding Fathers saw it as a public service binding this disparate country into one.

They didn't demand that the mail pay its own way, and certainly not that it be privatized. The spectacle of wrecking the post office on the eve of a national election would have shocked them. And it should shock you. Our very democracy hangs in the balance.

Michael Hiltzik

Michael Hiltzik

Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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