If you click online on the “official organizational chart” for the U.S. Postal Service, you’re likely to get one of those 404 page not found messages. At least, that’s what happened to me when I recently tried to figure it out what was going on at the post office. That’s because a couple of days ago, who is doing what at the Postal Service changed radically. About 23 executives resigned or were replaced. People have been concerned because USPS is finding itself stretched increasingly thin. It’s running out of money, like a lot of businesses that are dealing with this coronavirus. It’s being led by a new postmaster general, a guy known for pushing workers to a breaking point. There’s a slowdown in post office service that you can feel across the country. And all this is happening as it’s begun to dawn on many politicians just how essential the mail will be come November.
I spoke with Slate’s Jordan Weissmann about what’s happening and what Washington needs to do to get you your mail and ensure a free and fair election. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jordan Weissmann: Early on in the coronavirus crisis, it was very obvious that the Postal Service was going to be in financial trouble. And they started asking for a fairly large bailout, which Donald Trump was not at all on board with because the entire Trump administration hates the Postal Service. Trump has been ranting and raving about it for years now for all sorts of reasons.
The thing to realize about the Postal Service’s financial troubles is that most of them really have been due to this prefunding requirement. Back in 2006, Congress decided that the Postal Service should have to prefund about 75 years’ worth of its retiree health benefits.
Mary Harris: Does any other organization do this?
No, nobody does this. It’s insane. It immediately started to go wrong because they passed this and then we got the Great Recession, and the Postal Service just got walloped. And so for years and years after this, the Postal Service has been putting up these huge paper losses, the majority of which have come from this prefunding requirement.
These losses are on paper, but it’s still prevented them from really investing in modernizing their operations. And they have also faced legitimate challenges. The volume of first-class mail—just letters—which is their bread and butter, has decreased enormously, thanks to the internet. That’s been balanced out a good deal by package delivery. And that’s helped a lot. So the Postal Service’s financial troubles are partly a result of its core business declining. But they are also largely a creation of Congress. And so that’s why the whole idea of just totally trashing the service to save money on the edges is so, so absurd.
Let’s talk about the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. As soon as he took the helm, folks started ringing the alarms. Explain a little bit who he is.
Louis DeJoy is a former logistics executive. One of the first things that most people noticed when he was selected to be the postmaster general was that he was a major Republican donor. He’s given apparently about $2.5 million to the Republican Party. He also donated to Donald Trump’s victory fund. People immediately started to worry that Donald Trump was putting a flunky in charge of the Postal Service. [Editor’s note: The postmaster general is not directly appointed by the president but by the Postal Service Board of Governors, which consists of nine governors appointed by the president.] The reason this would concern people is because Donald Trump has spent the last several years trashing the Postal Service, calling it a joke, saying how it needs to increase package prices, mostly because he hates Amazon, because Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post.
He’s called it Jeff Bezos’ delivery boy. He’s call it the Amazon scam. He’s baselessly talked about how the Postal Service is supposedly giving Amazon a sweetheart shipping deal. He has had this vendetta against the Postal Service for a variety of reasons for a long time. Then also he’s been waging war against vote by mail for the last several months. And so we’ve had all these reasons to be worried about Donald Trump’s ill intentions for the United States Postal Service. And then he puts this guy who looks a lot like a flunky in charge of it.
As I was looking into this story, I wanted a better picture of how postal workers were thinking of Louis DeJoy.
They were not happy! He is not pro-labor. And that is one of the core tensions between conservatives and the Postal Service. Why a lot of conservatives despise the Postal Service is because it’s a huge, huge unionized workforce. They see it as the enemy in a lot of ways, and there’s a racial element to this because it’s a large unionized workforce with a lot of Black employees. Conservatives have wanted to spin it off and privatize it and break the union for years now. This guy they’ve put in charge is sort of the antithesis of what the Postal Service stands for. He’s a union-busting former private logistics executive. It’s very much the fox in charge of the henhouse.
Let’s lay out exactly what he did when he took this job, because very quickly he started remaking the organization.
Within about a month of arriving, he announced an “operational pivot.” No one ever wants to hear about an operational pivot. It was a series of cost-cutting measures. He said there would be no more overtime pay. He told letter carriers that they were not to return to pick up mail that had to be left on the factory floor. If they couldn’t make it all in one trip, they were just to leave it there. You make your one scheduled delivery and if stuff doesn’t fit on the truck, too bad, we get it the next day.
Is there a charitable interpretation of this?
The most charitable interpretation is that he’s trying to save a little bit of money for the Postal Service because it’s had these big “losses” over the past decade and it’s time for it to become more efficient and lose less money. But even that is extremely penny-wise and poun- foolish. These changes have resulted in massive backlogs in mail that are undermining people’s faith in the Postal Service’s ability to do its basic job. If you were trying to fix an organization and get it in shape for the long term, this is not the approach you would take.
And we should lay out really explicitly why a lot of politicians are thinking about this in terms of the election, because in 34 states, you don’t just have to have your absentee ballot postmarked by Election Day. It has to be received by Election Day. So you can see how a well-meaning person could drop off their ballot a few days earl, and it still wouldn’t reach the destination on time.
There is a concern about whether people will get their ballot on time and whether they’ll be able to get it delivered to the county election office on time. We’ve seen some discouraging signs already, for instance, with the Michigan primary, where some people weren’t getting their ballot until literally the day before. There have been signs that this is not an imaginary problem, that this is a real and present danger, and DeJoy has so far given absolutely no signal that he has any real plan to fix this problem.
Congress could get out in front of an election disaster here by making restoring the Postal Service a sticking point of the next coronavirus relief package. But it’ll take more than just money, right?
It’s pretty obvious at this point that just giving the USPS more cash is not good enough because it’s not clear that the Trump administration or Louis DeJoy would actually use the money. If Democrats and Republicans can reach some sort of a deal on coronavirus relief, that bill needs to contain a bailout for the Postal Service that, one, provides more money and, two, tells the Postal Service how it has to use the money and how it has to restore service. And has to speed up delivery back to where it was. And prioritize ballots. As I discovered while I was talking to some appropriations experts, there are all sorts of backhanded ways the Trump administration could actually basically impound any money Congress wanted to give it, if they’re not careful and don’t put restrictions on it.
Is it crazy to think that Republicans might want to help Democrats save the Postal Service?
It’s crossed my mind. I don’t know. It’s hard. There’s also a large contingent of the party right now that’s actually happy to just not pass any bill to deal with coronavirus relief at this point.
But the USPS is the most popular federal agency, like more popular than parks, more popular than NASA.
But again, you have to realize that they really hate the Postal Service. A lot of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives really, truly dislike it. But I think the reason why some conservatives might want to fix this issue is that Republicans are worried that their elderly voters in places like Florida are going to get screwed by this because they rely on vote by mail. We saw a little bit of movement on this from Trump, where after months and months of talking about how voting by mail wasn’t reliable and was fraudulent, he suddenly reversed course and said, except in Florida! In Florida, vote by mail is great. They have an established system and absentee ballots there are totally safe.
And of course that’s where the president votes. By mail.
And has for a while. And so it was silly. And it clearly shows how some Republicans are whispering in his ear, Hey, you might be screwing us over, too, by doing this. And so maybe, just maybe, that provides an opening to actually try to take action to fix what’s wrong with the Postal Service right now. But I would not count on a big hand from Republicans on this. Let’s put it that way. There needs to be as much volume about this as possible as soon as possible. If I’m the Democrats right now, I’m just talking every single day about how Donald Trump is sabotaging the Postal Service.
A lot of the criticism of DeJoy from postal experts has been that he talks about the USPS as a business. But they say it’s not a business, it’s a service—it’s a Postal Service. Do you buy it? Do you agree with that?
Yeah, it is a service. It’s in the goddamn Constitution. For various reasons, the Postal Service is treated as an independent agency that’s supposed to sort of be self-sustaining. And I don’t think it’s totally crazy to look for the Postal Service to kind of sort of break even. You don’t want to be spending taxpayer dollars deeply subsidizing Amazon deliveries. Private corporate customers and such should probably be paying their fair share. But at the same time, there’s no reason not to treat the mail as a government service. There’s no reason to be thinking of it as a profit-making entity. If you believe in government services, the Postal Service is kind of the original. It’s the thing that actually made this big sprawling country into something approximating a unified whole—that you could send letters across it and the government would carry them. So, yeah. I think treating it as a business is a little bit base and a little bit wrong, and it tells you a lot about the people who do that. They can’t conceive of something as just a public good.
Update, Aug. 10, 2020, at 2:30 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify how the postmaster general is appointed.