The United States Postal Service has long been the most popular government agency. The last Gallup poll on the question found 74 percent of Americans rated it as excellent or good — as compared to 60 percent for NASA or 50 percent for the IRS. Despite years of cash trouble (mainly the fault of Congress), most people like their good old mail carrier. Indeed, as I have written, this country could not function without the USPS.
So it should come as no surprise that President Trump is taking the agency apart. Jacob Bogage reports at The Washington Post that the USPS is facing huge problems under Louis DeJoy, a big Trump donor who was recently appointed postmaster general. DeJoy supposedly wants it to run more like a business, and has implemented structural changes that have fouled up deliveries. It's yet another example of how Trump's authoritarian rot is dissolving the American state — and raising the possibility of interference with the 2020 election.
Let me start with some background. As noted, the USPS has struggled since 2006, when Congress and President Bush imposed absurd retirement benefit funding requirements in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. As my colleague Jeff Spross writes, this required the agency to pre-fund its retiree health benefits over the next 75 years, and immediately knocked its budget into the red. As I have argued before, fully pre-funding even normal pensions is absurd for a permanent government agency, but this is even worse — requiring the USPS to sock money away for future employees who aren't even born yet.
As a result, the collapse in ordinary mail volume thanks to the coronavirus pandemic landed on an agency that was already struggling to keep its head above water. More than half of its mail trucks are outdated Grumman Long Life Vehicle models, kept in service long past their planned retirement dates, and have an alarming habit of catching on fire. They also have no air conditioning — as a result, hundreds of mail carriers have suffered heat exhaustion over the last few years, and some have even died of heatstroke.
Now, as the Post reports, the USPS has also seen a huge spike in demand for package delivery as people shop more online under quarantine, which has cushioned the blow somewhat. But the agency is still reeling, and now the Trump administration is making the problems worse. Congress authorized USPS to borrow $10 billion as part of a coronavirus relief package, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is refusing to hand over the money until it turns over much of its operations to him. (This was not remotely stipulated in the law and is probably illegal.)
Meanwhile, DeJoy is pushing a lot of business consultant mumbo-jumbo on the agency. He has limited overtime, instructed mail carriers to leave mail behind that will slow down their delivery routes, and required that they park no more than four times along their delivery routes. Trump, meanwhile, has demanded the USPS quadruple its rates on packages.
This betrays an alarming lack of understanding about what makes the USPS work. Its primary advantage is daily, inexpensive service to almost every house and business in the country. Efficiency is important, but reliability is even more so. People will not turn to it if their mail is randomly delayed or lost, which is liable to happen if it is left behind, much less if it costs four times what it currently does. Indeed, several cities are reporting severe problems with mail service of late. And limiting parking along the delivery route is simply bizarre — it could easily make the route take longer by forcing mail carriers to walk longer distances. (It sounds very much like the plutocrat knee-jerk belief that the way to improve efficiency is to abuse one's employees.)
It is hard to explain what is going on here. Part of it is surely the Republican hatred of public services of any kind. GOP dogma holds that government is bad by definition, and if there is a popular and successful agency, by God they will ruin it out of spite. Part of it is just the general malicious incompetence that saturates every part of the Trump administration. Part of it probably has to do with Trump's feud with Jeff Bezos — he seems to think that by punishing the USPS he can hurt Amazon.
But it's also impossible not to notice that Trump has been screeching paranoid lies about voting by mail for the last few months, falsely portraying it as some kind of Democratic conspiracy to commit voter fraud. The pandemic will surely still be raging come November, and people will therefore want to vote by mail if they can. Indeed, the USPS is already warning people to submit their ballots early. Trump or his toadies may be calculating that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail, therefore ruining mail delivery might mean enough ballots are lost or unable to be delivered in time to tip the election to Trump.
If that were to happen, it would be straight-up election theft. However, it might actually boomerang on Trump and other Republican candidates, which have historically relied on mail-in ballots to drive turnout among their elderly voters. Trump's own campaign has a large absentee ballot operation, but Trump's howling has apparently made his crackpot base leery of mail-in voting themselves — missing the intended message that mail-in voting is fraud only when Democrats do it. And if the pandemic is bad enough, many older Republicans may not vote at all for fear of catching COVID-19.
Whatever the reason, it's just one more potential accelerating catastrophe to add to the pile caused by Trump's disastrous misrule. The U.S. could not possibly have become a rich country without the connective social tissue of efficient mail service. But it seems the president is determined to cause as much destruction on his way down as he can.
Editor's note: This piece originally mischaracterized the nature of the 2006 USPS reform law. It has been corrected. The Week regrets the error.