The hue and cry about the future of the US Postal Service among members of Congress rings hollow when considering that it is a national service that has been ignored for more than 50 years. But now that it is a political pawn Congressional action is warranted and can be solved in a short period of time.
Founded in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress at the behest of Benjamin Franklin who became the first Postmaster General, the US Postal Service was the backbone of keeping America informed as it was expanding in both population and area. Its importance was such that it was elevated to a cabinet level department in 1872. And today it is one of the few federal agencies explicitly authorized by the Constitution.
In 1970, facing a nationwide strike of postal carriers demanding union representation, Congress separated the agency from its government connection and with the Postal Reorganization Act created a separate, self-supporting agency tasked with universal mail service. But the controls for the conduct of the agency remain with Congress which selects a Board of Governors whose primary constituency remains the very people who appoint them and not the service’s customers or employees.
Now with the growing possibility of voting-by-mail, members of Congress are upset that President Trump has demanded that the USPS either become more efficient, sell itself or cease operation. This is not a new concept. For years Congress has ignored the growing debts incurred by the postal service and many in the public have been very critical. The criticism over the past 50 years has been such that competitors such as private courier services, FedEx, UPS and DHL to name a few, have taken much of the postal service’s package delivery business.
But the real loss for the postal service is the erosion of first-class mail, which began to disappear in the final decade of the last century with the introduction of the fax machines and accelerated with internet communications. First-class mail volume peaked in 2001 and has been declining ever since. In 2008, despite efforts to automate mail sorting, the postal service began seeing income shortfalls. Now, certain politicians contend that, with the wave of a magic wand and hundreds of millions of dollars, a half century or more of neglect be corrected in just three months.
The cries of dismay, particularly from Speaker Pelosi are too little, too late. Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, has for years just kicked the can down the road when it comes to shoring up the postal service, watching as it slowly dies on the vine.
There is more to the story than just the condition of the postal service. Local and state election offices are poorly or totally ill-prepared should there be a wave of ballots delivered by mail. Congress has doled out $400 million to states for use as emergency funding to handle pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent AP article election experts speculate that $2 billion is the amount required to be ready for the November election. But lack of funding is only half of the problem. The lack of time to up-fit equipment, train people and educate the public also is an insurmountable obstacle.
Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program for Brennan Center for Justice noted “the (election) system is buckling under the weight of the dramatic surge and demands for absentee mail ballots. It hasn’t been built to withstand that high of a volume.”
New York’s June primary is evidence that while the postal service is most likely incapable of handling the potential mail volume should the expectation prove correct, neither are the state’s board of elections. One month after the election concluded many New York districts were still being tallied.
Added to the challenge of handling the ballots were the large number of ballots not accepted due to errors. New York City alone accounted for nearly 100,000 invalidated ballots.
If the New York primary is any indication, and we think it is, the November election stands to be one of the messiest and possibly the most litigated elections of all times. But rather than accepting the failures of years of neglect and working with a framework that is manageable Democrats in Congress have decided it’s better to find a victim, in this case the Postal Service, and decry the conditions that have been ignored for a half century.