Moneybox

What Democrats Have to Do to Save the Postal Service in Time for the Election

Give the agency the money it needs—and anticipate every single way Trump could mess with the mail anyway.

A postal worker loads mail into a USPS truck.
The fate of the republic is actually riding on these trucks. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It seems that Democrats in Congress are finally putting up a real fight to save the U.S. Postal Service, and in turn the November elections.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told told White House negotiators that the next coronavirus relief bill would have to include more funding for the financially battered agency and scrap rules that have created massive delivery delays, which many worry could disrupt voting by mail this year by preventing Americans from getting their ballots in on time. The pair also met with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the Trump donor and former logistics executive who, shortly after being appointed this year, imposed a series of cost-cutting measures that have slowed service to a crawl.

Afterward, Schumer called the conversation “heated” and told reporters that the party would continue pressing the issue. “We will advocate strongly for money so that they can hire all the people necessary, both overtime and new people, to make sure that every single ballot is counted,” he said. “That is a sine qua non for us.”

Actually winning this battle will be tricky, however. Democrats need to accomplish two separate and equally important tasks in order succeed. First, they need to need to win more funding for the Postal Service to guarantee it has enough manpower to handle the election. Second, they have to ensure that the administration actually uses the money to restore delivery back to normal. Left to his own devices, it seems unlikely that Donald Trump would cooperate.

It really cannot be overstated how much the president hates the Postal Service; as far as his personal obsessions go, it ranks only a bit below Crooked Hillary and Fake News CNN. He’s long accused USPS of giving a sweetheart shipping deal to Amazon, which he also despises, because CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. In 2018, his administration unveiled a plan to eventually privatize the agency, an idea many conservatives support, though the Treasury Department eventually walked it back a bit. This April, Trump called USPS a mismanaged “joke” and said he wouldn’t approve any coronavirus bailout money for it unless it massively raised its postage rates on packages.

It’s not 100 percent clear why Trump loathes America’s mail carriers so strongly. There’s the Bezos factor, of course. There’s the fact that he’s fairly close to UPS, which he’s called “one of the most amazing companies on Earth,” and has long lobbied for the Postal Service to raise package prices (which would let private shippers steal some of its business away). Meanwhile, many are worried that the president has been trying to kneecap the agency as part of his monthslong attack on mail-in voting, which he’s suggested is corrupt and unreliable (though he’s recently shifted to arguing vote-by-mail is just fine in states run by Republicans, like Florida). But regardless of his precise psychological motivations, Trump clearly has no desire to actually aid the USPS.

DeJoy, who began his tenure as postmaster general in June, was not appointed directly by Trump. But he shows every sign of being a flunky. The man is a big-time fundraiser for the Republican Party and backer of the president, who nominated DeJoy’s wife to be ambassador to Canada. The Postal Service’s board of governors, which officially selected DeJoy, was also dominated by the White House’s hand-picked members at the time (it currently consists entirely of Trump appointees). And after he arrived at USPS, DeJoy almost immediately announced a new set of rules that would slow down service. Among other changes, he banned overtime pay and extra delivery trips, and ordered mail carriers to leave letters and packages behind in distribution centers until the next day if they couldn’t fit on the truck. He justified this “operational pivot” as a cash-saving exercise—the Post Office has lost money each of the past 13 years, mostly due to a notoriously absurd rule requiring it to prefund all of its retiree health benefits, something no other federal agency or private company has to do. But they’re exactly the sort of changes you’d make if you wanted to undermine customers’ faith in an agency en route to privatizing it, or muck with an election. It doesn’t help matters that USPS is reportedly trying to almost triple what it charges states to mail ballots to voters.

All of which is to say that the safest bet for Democrats is to assume that they are dealing with a group of nihilists who will go out of their way to screw up the mail, regardless of what funding they put in the next relief bill.

One obvious way for USPS to do that would be to simply not spend the cash lawmakers set aside. The Ukraine scandal demonstrated that the Trump administration was willing to illegally hold up money that Congress appropriated in order to achieve its political goals. But short of an impeachable offense, there are also several lawful ways that the White House could try to freeze any additional funding for the Postal Service. For instance, the Office of Management and Budget could slow-walk the formal spending plan, known as an apportionment, that it will need to send USPS before the agency can actually use its infusion of dollars. The administration could also ask lawmakers to formally rescind the appropriation, which, under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, would allow Trump to pause the funding for up to 45 days. The time limit only includes days that Congress is actually in session, so if lawmakers took a summer or fall recess to go campaign, the countdown could actually last much longer, and possibly run out the shot clock until the election.

And then, even if the money did eventually make its way to USPS, it’s entirely possible the postmaster general would refuse to cooperate by simply keeping in place the set of policies that are currently slowing down mail delivery.

To save the Postal Service in time for the election, Democrats will need to head off that sort of chicanery. The good news is that they can, as long as they’re careful about writing the bill. “To restore service levels, Congress can increase funding and require that the postmaster general use those funds to restore service back to prior standards,” Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me. “In addition, Congress can take steps in legislation to force the funding it provides to the Postal Service to be immediately available to them, by requiring the Office of Management and Budget to move those funds immediately to the agency.”

Or, in short: Congress has to give the Postal Service the money, tell the agency very specifically how to use it, and bar Trump from impounding it. And at that point, we still have to hope the administration doesn’t just flout the law.

So far, Democrats have only checked a few items off this list. They’re currently demanding $10 billion over a year, and are suggesting that they’ll ask for policy changes as part of their legislation. But when the House passed its coronavirus relief bill, the HEROES Act, back in May, its section on postal funding didn’t include any strong protections that would stop Trump from freezing the appropriation. If Schumer and Pelosi want to win this standoff and fix the mail, they’ll have to cut all Trump’s avenues for sabotaging it.

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