In 1775, when the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin the first postmaster general, the challenges facing today’s post office could hardly be imagined.
The U.S. Postal Service is one of few federal agencies explicitly authorized by the Constitution. It is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality.
“Price and quality” are at the heart of the current debate about post office funding. The Postal Service faces yet again another budget crisis resulting from fewer First Class letters, mandated contributions to pensions and an obligation to deliver to every mailbox, no matter how remote and expensive to reach.
Congress needs to act on Postal Service funding and at the same time there should be an independent audit to determine appropriate postage rates.
The Postal Service confronts several financial challenges. More people emailing and fewer people licking stamps means less revenue. In 2006, Congress passed a law to require the USPS to pre-fund 75 years worth of retiree health benefits in the span of 10 years – a cost of approximately $110 billion. Although the money is intended to be set aside for future postal retirees, the funds are instead being diverted to help pay down the national debt.
Unlike FedEx or UPS, the Postal Service must deliver to every address. It costs the same to mail a letter across town (although hardly anyone does that anymore) than it does to mail a friend in Hawaii or Key West.
Unlike military bases, national parks or NASA launch sites, every congressional district has post offices. No member of congress wants to shut down, raise the price or cut the services of this ubiquitous and popular public service. A survey by the Pew Research Center finds at a time when only a tiny fraction of people surveyed believe the federal government does the right thing most of the time, 90 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of the Postal Service, a higher rating than any other agency.
Now the public health crisis means the post office is more important than ever. We buy more online and many people depend on mail delivery of prescriptions. When you buy from Amazon and other online retailers, it’s a good bet FedEx or UPS hands off that package to the Postal Service to be delivered the last mile to your house.
With a general election months away, Congress and many state officials who run voting see mail-in ballots as a safe, fraud-free way of making sure every person can vote without risking their health. Some 45 states, including Minnesota, allow some form of voting by mail. Before the pandemic struck the Unted States, five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – conducted their elections using a vote-by-mail system. Other states are now acting to increase vote-by-mail options.
Unfortunately, these two issues – postage rates and vote by mail – collide with two of Donald Trump’s pet peeves.
Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post, which has a long history of holding presidents accountable (remember Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton) with aggressive, independent reporting. Trump would like to quadruple the rate Amazon pays to ship. However USPS leaders say they make money on packages and they are required by law to charge the cost of service.
More than Washington Post reporters, the prospect of voting by mail, really gets under Trump’s skin. With a high voter turnout, helped in part by easier voting, he sees an abrupt and embarrassing end to his presidency.
Whether we should increase vote-by-mail options should be decided by elected officials and secretaries of state. It should not get tangled up with funding the post office.
Congress should provide short-term funding to keep the USPS operating beyond September, and meanwhile, independent analysts should take a critical look at postage rates and services and come up with a budget based on facts, not political pique.
We’re not in Ben Franklin’s America anymore.