There is an old line that applies to countless things in our collective experience. ‘You don’t know what you have,’ it goes, ‘until you lose it.’ It could be anything, including, now, the United State Postal Service, an historic institution beloved by millions of Americans. But it’s not so beloved by the one person and biggest critic of all, the President, who has made no bones about his disdain for the institution.
Last month in the Oval Office, he accused the Postal Service of gross inefficiency, threatening to withhold any funding for it. “The Postal Service is a joke,” he said, accusing it of playing favorites with Amazon “and other internet companies.” Amazon, it should be noted, is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, a newspaper that has written critically about the President and his administration.
The President, along with other USPS critics, say the Post Office operates in a deep well of red ink. That part is true. It loses approximately $5 billion annually. But the reason it does, requires a broader understanding.
Something called the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) keeps the USPS flailing in red ink. The law mandates the USPS, an agency that gets no taxpayer subsidies, prefund retiree health benefits until 2056. The provision is unique in both government and private sectors and, even by critics, is puzzling. Without this provision, the Postal Service would actually make money each year.
“I believe he doesn’t understand that it’s a service to every American,” said Omar Gonzalez, the Western Vice President of the American Postal Workers Union. “You’re going to get the same service,” he said, if you live in a city or in the most remote location imaginable.
The President’s solution to the problem is simple. “The Post Office should raise the price of a package by approximately four times,” he said in his recent Oval Office volley on the USPS. Or, “let Amazon build their own post office, which would be a very impossible thing to do because the post office is massive.” The USPS does not set its own rates. That is done by the Postal Regulatory Commission, an agency charged with oversight.
Trump critics say he’s ramping up criticism on the Post Office because there is a Presidential Election in November and mail-in ballots would favor Democrats. There is no evidence that either party benefits. Trump also calls it an invitation to cheat though voter fraud is one of the least prosecuted offenses in any state. Colorado enacted vote by mail in 2013 and voter fraud has not been an issue. U.S. military and expatriates have also been voting by mail for years. So, too, does the President.
Gonzalez, a 49-year veteran of the USPS, said it’s just not that easy replacing the kind of company that moves 47 percent of the world’s mail and “processes billions of pieces of mail each day,” though electronic delivery---smart phones and computers---FedEx and UPS have caused a 27 percent dip in volume in recent years. Replacing it, he argued, could create more problems than it would solve, not the least of which would be addressing the half-million postal workers who would suddenly not have jobs.
Finding a new way to deliver mail, he said, would simply be creating a headache that the country doesn’t need as it grapples with historic unemployment and a COVID-19 pandemic. “Multiple private enterprises,” he said, might jump into the fray, each with “competing profit desire.” Consumers, he predicted, would end up paying for everything the post office provides for free.
A nation suddenly without a postal service would further isolate the isolated. “There are parts of this country that don’t have internet,” he said. “The Postal Service delivers medications and medical supplies to more than 330,000 veterans each month and not just in isolated places but in big cities, too.”
While the President may not like the current structure of the USPS, there are literally millions of American who do. In a recent Pew Research poll, 90 percent of those polled rated the USPS their favorite government agency, even ahead of NASA. Some people, said Gonzalez, “go to the post office just to meet and talk, sometimes to say ‘hi’ to the window clerk.” It connects a community.
But the popularity of USPS may not isolate it from the President’s desire to fundamentally reshape it. He recently appointed Louis DeJoy, a businessman and top fundraiser to represent the President as the Treasury Department and USPS negotiate a $10 billion line of credit that was part of the coronavirus legislation.
There may be course corrections in store for this vaunted institution which turns 245 years old in July. One possibility is adding some form of limited banking, like cashing checks and maintaining savings accounts. It could be a boon in isolated communities, urban and rural. But the post office is not going away tomorrow and certainly not without a fight.
Every day the USPS serves “thousands of Coloradans and millions of Americans,” said Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter. It’s a lifeline for people to “participate in our democracy and are counted in the 2020 Census.” President Trump’s idea of scrapping it will only result in “hurting Americans who need them (services) most.”