In case you missed it—because it got so little news attention—there’s a bit of good news regarding the United States Postal Service (USPS). In what was a very rare moment of bipartisan unity on a domestic issue, the U.S. Senate on March 8 passed the Postal Service Reform Act with a robust vote of 79 to 19. The House of Representatives passed the same bill in February with similarly high levels of support from both parties in a 342-92 vote. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.
While such broad support would ordinarily be cause for skepticism about how progressive a bill could be if Republicans in particular backed it, it turns out that an improbable alignment of factors helped the cause of reforming the USPS. In fact, progressives would do well to seize this chance to build on the model of success and efficiency, which a trusted and well-loved government agency is offering Americans.
Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) who has closely studied the USPS for years, shared with me in a recent interview that she too was initially suspicious of the reform bill. Usually broad support “signals something that’s weak or ineffectual, or even bad,” she said. “Not in this case.”
The centerpiece of the reform act is that it undoes an onerous requirement that a 2006 law placed on the USPS to pre-fund employee benefits for 75 years into the future. For years, critics pointed out that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was financially crippling the agency.
No other government or private entity is required to fund benefits for such an extraordinarily long period. It’s no wonder that the agency so many Americans rely on was constantly facing cuts, threats of price hikes, and reduced services. Morrissey described the 2006 law as “basically crushing the Postal Service for the past 15 years,” and imposing on it an “unearned reputation for being always in the red, or bankrupt, or inefficient.”
This served right-wing purposes well. Embodying President Ronald Reagan’s infamous inaugural speech claiming that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” conservatives for decades sought to stymie agencies like the USPS that provide crucial low-cost services to Americans.
But, according to Morrissey, “the Postal Service is hyper-efficient,” and it “delivers to more addresses with fewer… employees” than its private competitors. Unlike businesses like UPS or FedEx, which simply cut services to areas that are too expensive to serve, the USPS is mandated to ensure delivery services to all parts of the nation. This is a critical aspect of government-run agencies: to ensure everyone’s needs are met without regard to costs, revenues, or profits, and it’s one of many reasons why the USPS is superior to private delivery companies. “Rural areas depend on the Postal Service more than urban areas,” said Morrissey.
Even more impressive, the USPS is a self-funded agency, receiving no direct government funding, and sustaining itself from its own revenues. And, since there is no requirement to siphon off profits in order to ensure dividends to shareholders, the USPS can do more for less.
During the pandemic, the USPS’s value to the public became more apparent than ever. Nearly overnight, Americans sharply increased their reliance on delivered groceries, medications, and other consumer goods, and postal workers heroically stepped in to meet their needs.
Most recently, the Biden administration used the USPS as a very efficient and successful distribution system for free at-home COVID tests to all Americans who wanted them, via a USPS-run website, COVIDtests.gov. The Postal Service delivered more than 270 million tests to Americans in the span of just a few weeks.
A RAND survey of how the agency performed during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the public gave it high marks. Large majorities of respondents trusted the service more than its private counterparts, and the RAND researchers specifically cited its “universal obligation to provide service to every delivery point in the United States, regardless of whether it is profitable.”
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Republicans heavily politicized the Postal Service over its role in helping Americans to cast ballots. A staggeringly large percentage of Americans who voted in the election—nearly half—mailed in ballots using the Postal Service. The ease and efficiency of voting by mail were seen as a problem by a party that has increasingly relied on restricting voting as a pathway to power.
Now, apparently seeing the light, both Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the Postal Service Reform Act, doing away with the pre-funding of benefits that had for years provided fodder for anti-USPS criticism. One possible reason why the GOP may not have fought against the bill is that the vote did not take place close enough to an election to prompt complaints of voting by mail. And, it may also be that the party realizes that its voters, who skew disproportionately older, rely heavily on voting by mail.
Another reason why the GOP did not fight against the bill is that the current Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee whom Morrissey admitted she is not a fan of, “seems to really want to keep the job, and so he has not always been on the wrong side of things.” DeJoy, who had come under fire for removing hundreds of bulk mail sorting machines in 2020 in what many feared was a deliberate ploy to hobble the agency, actually lobbied hard for the Postal Service Reform Act, ensuring Republican support.
Still, it’s not as if the postmaster general has suddenly decided to dedicate himself to the public interest. Morrissey cited a problematic $11.3 billion contract that DeJoy recently signed to upgrade the Postal Service’s fleet of vehicles. Disturbingly, 90 percent of the new vehicles, as per the contract, would be gas-guzzling cars and trucks rather than electric ones. USPS vehicles “should be the first, not the last, vehicles to be electric,” said Morrissey. The timing of such a contract, considering recent sharp increases in gas prices, couldn’t be worse, and Democratic lawmakers are now threatening to launch an investigation.
Still, the potential to expand on the USPS’s successful model is great, and more lawmakers are taking note. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, a veteran of the USPS herself, has floated an idea to make post offices the sites of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. There is a dire need to build such charging infrastructure on a national level in order to transition to renewable, fuel-efficient cars. With post offices spread evenly all across the country, expanding them into hubs for EV charging would go hand in hand with transitioning all Postal Service vehicles to electric. The USPS could charge its vehicles overnight, while customers could charge their cars during the day.
Notwithstanding the negative actions of those seeking to sabotage the Postal Service, the example that this successful agency offers us on other fronts is also critically important. If a government-run provider can deliver a critical service to the public with a high level of trust and efficiency, and at a low cost, we can and should see it as a valid model for other desperately needed government services—such as health care, banking, guaranteed basic income, and more.
Naysayers will point out that mail delivery is hardly comparable to such complex needs as health care or banking. But the privately run businesses that dominate those industries have proven they are incapable of providing services adequate to meeting the needs of the American people. Compared with other nations, most of which have publicly funded health care systems, the United States performs terribly on providing care. And, areas with poorer access to health care resulted in disproportionately more COVID-19 related deaths, as per one study.
There are similar problems in the banking industry. Private banks are notorious for taking advantage of the poor, in particular using debt as leverage to squeeze more money from vulnerable Americans. Now, a movement to build a public banking system is gaining steam in states like California. Even more exciting, the Postal Service is starting to offer limited banking services in some areas.
Reagan was wrong. Government is not the problem. Government can be the solution.