Don’t hobble the Postal Service then blame it for not running well

For more than a decade on this page, we’ve advocated to save the United States Postal Service.

In the time of coronavirus, when postal deliveries have dropped by about a third, largely because businesses are shut, the mission of the Postal Service, connecting citizens across our nation, remains more vital than ever.

Upcoming school budget votes and school board votes in New York State, postponed from May to June 9, will be handled by mailed paper ballots. So, too, will New York’s June 23 primary be conducted through mail balloting. And, as the important November presidential election looms, it looks like voting by mail would be the safest way to exercise our democratic duty.

The Postal Service, however, has said it may not be able to continue service past September without help. 

Nearly a decade ago, as the Postal Service faced insolvency, we wrote about its plans to close its offices in Clarksville and Guilderland Center. Residents in Guilderland Center expressed their dismay, referring to the post office as the hub of their small community.

“Taking away the post office is taking away our identity,” said the pastor of the Helderberg Reformed Church in Guilderland Center. The acting postmaster said that the elderly were kept track of through the post office; if someone doesn’t show up for mail for a day or two, that person is checked on.

Clarksville residents expressed similar concerns. Many residents in that rural area of New Scotland have small businesses and rely on having a convenient post office, said the town’s supervisor.

Ultimately, the Postal Service kept those small offices open but cut back their hours.

Last week, more than 1,200 groups, which formed the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, sent a letter to congressional leaders, urging support of the Postal Service. The Altamont Enterprise was among the many members of the National Newspaper Association to sign that letter along with groups like the Package Coalition, whose members include Amazon.com.

Big and small businesses as well as everyday citizens are served by the United States Postal Service. President Donald Trump recently threatened to block federal aid to the Postal Service if it did not charge online shippers like Amazon.com higher rates. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, owns The Washington Post, which Trump has accused of unfair coverage.

The heart of the matter over all these years remains the same: Unlike any other federal government entity, the postal service is expected to pay for itself.

Following a strike in 1970 — postal workers were upset over poor working conditions and low pay — the Postal Reorganization Act was signed by then-President Richard Nixon. The cabinet-level Post Office Department was replaced then with the United States Postal Service, a new entity that would function like a business without government funding.

The current administration has long wanted to go a step further. Trump issued an executive order in 2018, stating that the United States Postal Service is “on an unsustainable financial path and must be restructured to prevent a taxpayer-funded bailout.”

Trump established a task force to examine, among other things, “the decline in mail volume and its implications for USPS self-financing and the USPS monopoly over letter delivery and mailboxes” and “the definition of the ‘universal obligation’ in light of changes in technology, e-commerce, marketing practices, and customer needs.”

There’s no doubt that the internet brought a seachange in communication. But, as Congressman Paul Tonko told The Enterprise in 2012, the Postal Service loss that Trump cites in his executive order — $65 billion since the recession — came from federal government requirements not imposed on other offices.

In 2006, after operating on a “pay-as-you-go” system, the post office was required under a new law to fully fund its retirees’ health benefits for 75 years into the future. Tonko said then that the post office pays between $5.5 billion and $5.8 billion a year into the retirement system and that expense has done the most damage to the postal service.

“It caused tremendous revenue drain … ,” he said. “There’s a lot we could do with five-and-a-half billion dollars,” Tonko said.

“It shall be the policy of my Administration that the United States postal system operate under a sustainable business model to provide necessary mail services to citizens and businesses, and to compete fairly in commercial markets,” Trump said in his executive order.

That is precisely the sort of language — framing a government service as a business model — that was used in the 2018 report, “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations,” issued by the Office of Management and Budget after another executive order from Trump.

The report calls for the “return” of the postal system to “a sustainable business model” or to prepare it for future conversion from a government agency into a privately-held corporation.

 Government is not a business. The central mission of government is to provide services for its citizens. The central mission of a business is to turn a profit.

“A privatized Postal Service would have a substantially lower cost structure,” the 2018 report says, “be able to adapt to changing customer needs and make policy decisions free from political interference.”

Of course a privatized service could cut delivery hours, even days, and stop delivering to difficult inner-city or rural areas. That would save money but would that best serve United States citizens?

And of course privatization would do away with that pesky part of government — where representatives ostensibly look out for the good of the people.

“A private postal operator that delivers mail fewer days per week and to more central locations (not door delivery) would operate at substantially lower costs,” the report says. “Freeing USPS to more fully negotiate pay and benefits rather than prescribing participation in costly Federal personnel benefit programs, and allowing it to follow private sector practices in compensation and labor relations, could further reduce costs.”

No surprise there, either. If workers are paid less and have fewer benefits, a private company could make more money. The private company could make more money, too, if mail were not delivered to the door or if the company charged more money for hard-to-reach areas. But, again, would this best serve United States citizens?

Postal delivery is an essential government service and, with government backing, it could be further retooled to remain essential in the digital age. 

Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s Senator, last week promoted her bill to create postal banking.

“I want to deal with some of the economic inequality that’s really become obvious through this crisis,” Gillibrand said through a video conference call during Friday’s Albany County briefing. “We’ve seen that COVID disproportionately affects communities of color; we’ve seen it in Albany and, unfortunately, that’s because of … decades of institutional racism and other factors that affect people’s health.”

She said that communities of color often don’t have access to health care, clean air, clean water, and safe and appropriate housing. Gillibrand wants to change access to capital. “One of the toughest things for a low-income American is they don’t have a savings account, a checking account,” she said, so they can’t get loans or mortgages.

The Postal Banking Act would establish a retail bank in each of the United States Postal Service’s 30,000 locations. New York State has 1,506 post offices. Households would be able to open accounts at the post office with a $20,000 limit on checking and savings accounts, and would be able to take out loans capped at $500. Rates on the loans would be linked to the one-month treasury bill constant maturity rate.

The Postal Banking Act would effectively wipe out predatory payday lending-industry practices, Gillibrand said in making the announcement, practices that cost the average underserved household 10 percent, or $2,412, of their gross income in fees and interest. This adds up to about $100 billion of lost savings for low-income families across the country, and results in diminished funding for rent, food, and childcare, as well as an inability to build credit.

On Friday, Gillibrand asked her listeners at the briefing to imagine needing $500 for an overdue heating bill or an unexpected car repair. She noted that the post office did banking from the turn of the century until the 1960s.

We like Gillibrand’s proposal. We believe that difficult times call for bold measures. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1935, used postal banks to sell Treasury bonds to pay off the budget deficit after the Great Depression. In 1941, the postal banks started selling “Defense Savings Stamps” to help fund World War II, raising $8 billion for the war effort.

Whether or not the Postal Banking Act passes, the pre-funding of health care and pensions for the Postal Service, borne by no other government agency, must be done away with. Trump’s own task force found that the Postal Service would have been profitable were it allowed the same treatment as other agencies rather than having to finance its pension and health-care costs 75 years in advance. 

The United States Post Office was critical to the American colonies in winning their independence from England and it grew with the nation as mail traveled by horseback, by stagecoach, by steamship, by train, and by plane. We need to ensure that it continues to connect us in this digital age when the current pandemic has underlined our need for a method of physical delivery and connection.

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