Perhaps snow, rain, heat or gloom won’t stop couriers from delivering your mail, but financial insolvency will, and now is not the time to play political games with America’s favorite government institution.
The United States Postal Service is on track to run out of operating cash as early as the end of September, according to a statement from the National Association of Letter Carriers. Congress authorized an emergency $10 billion line of credit to the agency as part of the initial round of stimulus funding, but the Trump administration aimed to block the loan unless the Postal Service agreed to raise its package delivery rates by as much as four-fold.
The move was, as most observers noted, another shot fired in the feud between companies like Amazon and the White House. Charging Amazon more to deliver its parcels through the Postal Service could temporarily boost revenue, but Amazon could just as easily pass the costs on to consumers. If the rate hike was high enough, Amazon might avoid USPS altogether in search of cheaper options.
The Postal Service would be better served by granting it emergency relief for the short-term and vigorously helping it adapt to a more sustainable future.
The Postal Service hasn’t turned a profit since 2006, according to Pew Research Center. Although total mail volume has declined by 31% since the year 2000, it’s more likely that a 2006 law mandating the agency prefund worker’s pensions and retirement health care benefits has the largest impact on its operating budget.
Between 2007 and 2016, USPS lost $62.4 billion, an estimated 87% of which is attributed to the prefunding requirement, according to the Postal Service inspector general.
It’s clear that needs to change.
The pandemic has further decreased demand and increased hazardous work conditions. At least 5,000 postal workers are quarantined, and 60 have died from the virus. A USPS press release dated May 8 warned, “It is estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic will substantially increase the Postal Services net operating loss over the next 18 months.”
Beyond either letting the agency die or selling it off to private interests, both of which would likely require an amendment to the Constitution, lawmakers should act on recommendations outlined in a 2016 report to Congress. Among the suggestions are a shorter delivery week and an expansion of nonpostal services, such as banking, drivers’ license services and public internet access.
Even as the world embraces digital communication, America has every reason to ensure a safe future for the postal service. Physical mail remains a vital part of official communication, including vote-by-mail elections. The agency draws praise from equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, with 91% of the country holding a favorable view of the service. It hasn’t relied on taxpayer funds since the 1970s.
As one City University of New York professor reminds, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and James Madison were all ardent defenders of a low-cost national framework for communicating. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the “astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers” during his 19th century tour of America. Abraham Lincoln insisted mail be delivered to the South during the Civil War.
The Postal Service is, the professor summarizes, “the most American thing we’ve got.”
Congress and the administration shouldn’t let that legacy falter because of politics and corporate grudges. They should loan cash for the short term and follow up with a viable plan to maintain solvency in the years ahead.