Most people don’t think about the post office too much. It is one of those federal agencies that just works. You send something and it gets there in a timely manner. If a company needs to send you some paperwork, it gets there, no problem. UPS and FedEx are night for overnights or faster shipping but the good old reliable post office works just as well. It’s ubiquitous too, they are in nearly every town in America. So why is President Trump going after something as important as the post office?
A History of Mail
The USPS has been in existence since the founding of the country. It is one of the only constitutionally authorized federal agencies (article 1) and is one of the federal institutions that the public interacts with the most. The founders saw a functioning postal system as essential to society, especially in an age before the telephone and the internet. Having a reliable post office to send documents, contracts, and personal mail was essential to any business being transacted anywhere throughout the young country.
Post Offices aren’t terribly profitable things. In the centuries, stretching back to antiquity, mail was usually carried by services that were also carrying goods and services to another city or distant location. Delivering the mail, itself is not terribly profitable. UPS and FedEx make all their money on special services like 2nd day International and Overnight services. Ground shipping and other services tend to lose money because they just aren’t that profitable considering all the costs involved in getting a package or a piece of mail from one place to another.
Reliable mail service is important for a variety of reasons. In rural areas, its the only way to get things in or out, FedEx and UPS pay the Post Office to do that for them. The Post Office gets medications to veterans, they handle everything from birthday cards to official government documents, tax returns, and other paperwork. The digital age has not entirely eliminated those things. Older people still pay bills by check through the mail. Businesses may still invoice via the mail as well. Although it seems everything is digital, physical transportation of the mail is still a vital service that we should all care about.
Mail-in Voting and Ballot Harvesting
For some reason that passes understanding, the USPS has come under fire this election cycle because President Trump decided that “mail-in voting” was less secure than “absentee voting” (they are both the same thing) despite the fact that he and his children vote by mail. Every election, the republican party always trots out various ideas about problems with voting. However, studies have shown that voter fraud in the United States is incredibly low because elections are run by the states and also by local control. The people handling the votes are government workers and the polls are run by nice local people who are not invested in any voting discrepancies. This is why American elections are the envy of the world. It’s one of the things we get right in this country.
The main thrust of the attacks on the USPS is simple voter suppression. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, many states have opened their absentee ballot system where you mail in your vote. 5 states vote entirely by mail (Oregon, Utah, Washington, Colorado, and Hawaii) This relies on the USPS working properly and being able to handle the extra flow of mail. By attacking the USPS, the Trump administration reduces public trust in absentee/mail-in voting. Trump-appointed a new post-master general who promptly reduced overtime availability and removed high-capacity sorting machines from postal sorting centers around the country. After public outcry, this was halted but the damage had already been done. Many of the machines were broken or missing parts after being thrown into dumpsters or packed away in warehouses. It has never been clear if they were reinstalled in time for the election but ultimately, it didn’t matter. People have decided to risk their lives to vote in person or drop off their ballot at a ballot dropbox. If a voter cannot do that or does not want to risk their life, they may not be able to vote. This is where the Trump strategy works so well. Fewer people voting always benefits Republicans.
The Larger USPS Issue
No discussion of the post office would be complete without understanding the larger issue around the post office. Post offices aren’t profitable and they don’t really need to be. The Post Office is usually self-sustaining. The sale of stamps and other services (like money orders etc.) covers the cost of the Post Office. However, the Post Office does offer very generous compensation for workers and also has a really good pension system and this is where the Post Office is in financial trouble. The USPS had to go to Congress in 2006 for money to find retirement healthcare costs that were getting out of control. Congress passed legislation for the money but then required the Post Office to fund these costs to the tune of $72 Billion for 75 years of projected costs. This means that they are funding retirement costs for workers that aren’t even born yet and don’t know that they will be delivering the mail. Since 2006, the Post Office has posted losses every year as it attempts to fund this requirement. When people say that the Post Office doesn’t make any money, that’s only been true for the past 14 years, and it’s due to Congressional mandate. The situation of the Post Office isn’t unique to government agencies. Governments throughout the country are facing a funding shortfall for pension and retiree healthcare costs. People are living longer and using more healthcare leading to higher costs.
Defending the Post Office
Most people did not have “save the Post Office” on their 2020 bingo card but here we are with this mess that is entirely manufactured by the government in a very bipartisan way. What’s worse is that making people distrust the Post Office hurts older Republican voters who tend to vote by mail because it is hard for them to get out to vote or because they live in a rural area. Mail-in voting isn’t fraudulent or less secure than in-person voting. A reliable postal system is vital and important to keep the country moving. Yet, here we are having to defend the Post Office. When mail sorting machines were removed, local people called down to their Post Office to volunteer to sort mail if need be. That should not be necessary for this country. The Post Office might need reform but right now it is being compromised to serve political ends and to fix a financial problem that Congress could simply fix. That is unfair to the American people, we all deserve better.