Maybe someday when the United States has a president who is not crazy or senile, a Senate president who isn’t his tool, and a House speaker who doesn’t think that those who disagree with her are “enemies of the state,” the country can have a serious discussion about fixing the U.S. Postal Service.
President Donald Trump recently suggested that he wanted to cut off money for the postal service to hamper the voting by mail desired by Democratic leaders. The postmaster general, a big donor to the president’s campaign who is invested in companies that compete with the postal service, had ordered economy measures that raised suspicion about his motives. But he has postponed those measures until after the election.
Since throwing fantastic amounts of money at everything has become national policy, the other day the Democratic majority in the House passed an emergency appropriation of $25 billion for the postal service with barely a thought about the service’s inefficiencies and potential.
Just as the president seems to want to weaken the postal service for partisan reasons, the Democrats seem to want to keep it operating just as it is because it employs about 600,000 people, most of them belonging to a union that supports Democrats. In the Democratic view, delivering the mail efficiently seems to be secondary.
The postal service long has been losing big money. It has not come close to covering its costs for the last 13 years, during which its losses have totaled $78 billion. Its unfunded pension and retirement medical insurance liabilities are worse.
In 1971 the postal service was taken out of the regular government and made a supposedly independent agency in the hope that regular business practices would be applied and improve efficiency. But this didn’t accomplish much. Mainly postage prices rose as government’s direct subsidies were withdrawn, and the postal service’s financial position worsened.
Customer services have been expanded but mail volume has fallen sharply, first because of the internet and lately because of the virus epidemic, so the postal service doesn’t make full use of its vast infrastructure.
Its defenders, mainly Democrats, note that the postal service was never supposed to earn a profit but to knit the country together. It has done that well. But the postal service’s defenders imply that because it wasn’t meant to make money, it’s all right for it to lose any amount of money — that its primary purpose now is not delivering the mail but employment and that postal employment is the best use of the money being spent to cover losses.
Republicans are suspected of wanting to privatize the postal service or cripple it by repealing its monopoly on delivery of first-class mail. Certainly private companies might do better with such mail in some respects, but the law requires the postal service to serve all people in the country at the same rates — to make not just the less expensive deliveries of densely populated areas but the more expensive deliveries in the remote countryside. The postal service is a great gift to rural areas, the country’s breadbasket.
In any case the postal service has a big underused infrastructure even as it still knits the country together. But like nearly everything else in government, its employment costs are excessive. If actual governing ever resumes in Washington, improving the postal service while making it break even should be high on the agenda.