Politics

What the Fight Over the Mail Is Really About

A postal worker in uniform pushes a cart full of mail past a loading dock area.
A postal worker in Chicago earlier this month. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Listen to What Next:

Jacob Bogage is a reporter at the Washington Post. He’s been covering the U.S. Postal Service as it goes through some of its biggest changes in years. The change that’s most noticeable has already taken effect. Your post office used to aim to deliver the mail within three days of receiving it. Now, the goal is delivery within five days. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy says his agency is running up too many costs. The slowdown on mail is just one way he’s trying to fix that. Democrats in Congress have been unhappy with DeJoy’s changes.

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Let me just say: The idea of mail makes sense, as a concept, sure. But the U.S. Postal Service is confusing. And the debates over how it should fulfill its mission and what its finances should look like are practically guaranteed by the law governing this agency. I say this because that law does not make sense. And if you have any doubt of that, Jacob Bogage will read the law to you:

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I have done Talmudic scholar–like level reading on 39 U.S.C. 101. You could not write a more confusing thing if you tried.

“The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the nation together.” And then you have one sentence that says and the value is also very important.

I read Section A to you; Section B is “shall provide maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural communities. No post office shall be closed for operating in a deficit.” OK, well then how do you expect it to make money?

“In planning and building new postal services shall emphasized the need for facilities and equipment designed to create desirable working conditions.” So it’s basically like spend all this money on everything but break even, please.

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With a law that muddled, neither snow nor rain will keep us from arguing about the Postal Service. And the core disagreement is profound. “Questions about what we want our Postal Service to be are not fundamentally about the mail. They are about what we expect from our government,” Bogage says.

On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Bogage about this fundamentally debate and why the mail is slowing down even though the Democrats our now in charge. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Wilson: What are the most controversial parts of the new plan that’s been approved for the USPS?

Jacob Bogage: There’s two main parts that are most controversial, and they work in tandem. One is the service slowdowns. Your mail is going to get slower. No matter where you were in the United States, if you sent a piece of first-class mail, it was supposed to be delivered, previously, within one to three days. Now that will be within two to five days. It could be longer for offshore areas, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, other territories.

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The other is a price increase that will go hand in hand with that. So not only is your mail going to get slower, you are going to pay more for it.

The Postal Service is required by law to be self-sustaining. Now, the way that’s been interpreted is the Postal Service does not get taxpayer funding. It supports itself based on the rate pay. You send a piece of mail; that is what qualifies as the Postal Service’s funding, the profit it can take from that. The Postal Service clearly is not self-sustaining, because it has all this debt. It cannot pay it back. That, however, drives so much of the decision-making of postal leadership that they feel an obligation to rein in spending to get back on that track. What none of them will tell you is that getting back on that track without writing off a lot of that debt and putting it on the taxpayer anyway is impossible. We have passed the point of no return for a self-sustaining post office unless we want to ask it to do a bunch more things, or we want to start paying taxes to it, which most other developed countries do.

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Maybe the Biden administration would like a post office that doesn’t need to be self-sustaining. But Biden can’t radically change the way the post office works right now. The agency isn’t under the thumb of the president. It’s run by a board. And the CEO the board chose last year, with much input from the Trump administration, is Louis DeJoy. 

Louis DeJoy is the postmaster general of the United States. That’s a position that originated in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin. The Postal Service of the United States is older than the country itself. That speaks to the import of this position that Louis DeJoy inherits in June of 2020. He is a former supply chain logistics executive that was in the business of getting objects from Point A to Point B. He’s also a major donor to the Trump campaign, in the order of millions of dollars for his 2020 reelection effort. Less than a month after he takes over in June of 2020, he hands down a series of organizational changes at the Postal Service, instructing postal workers to slow down the mail—that we cannot afford anymore to be heroic. We can be dedicated and consistent. And that completely frazzles the agency’s network. We’re seeing mail left behind. We’re seeing piles and piles and piles of packages stacked up in postal facilities such that there are fire hazards and folks have to push them out of the way to create safe exits in the case of emergency. And this is all happening as it’s becoming very, very clear that this election, that elected Joe Biden president of the United States, is going to be conducted in large part through the mail. And it’s becoming even more clear that even though it may not have been Donald Trump’s original design, hampering the Postal Service is going to be a major pillar of his attempt to delegitimize the election and ultimately try to cling to power.

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Right, Democrats were just freaking out last year. DeJoy was seen as like the apotheosis of their fears. What do we know about how the USPS actually handled election related mail?

They did a decent job. Of the mail pieces that they were able to identify as ballots, which were not all of them.

Just about half.

Right. Just about half. They delivered the vast, vast majority—more than 95 percent—on time.

And they spent money doing that. They made the effort to do it.

And they spent money doing that because they were ordered by four federal courts to do that. So the election happens. Joe Biden’s generally accepted as the winner of the election on Nov. 7. He forms a transition team, as all presidents do. He even forms a transition team for the post office, which is unheard of, because it’s in such poor shape. By February, after he’s taken office, he names three nominees to the Postal Service’s nine-member board of governors. He does this before his attorney general nominee, Merrick Garland, is even confirmed. These were among his first appointments.

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Why is that so significant?

There was a recognition that the Postal Service was in deep turmoil, both financially and operationally. There was a deep distrust of this fundamental institution, and part of the Build Back Better agenda was restoring faith in institution. That made revamping the Postal Service a major priority. Before those nominees can be confirmed by the Senate, the Postal Service’s board of governors, which at that point was entirely appointed by President Trump, rushes to approve its 10-year plan for the Postal Service, that includes cost-cutting and service slowdowns. And immediately after the new members to the postal board are confirmed, all three of them speak out publicly, saying, “We have strong disagreements with the service slowdown portions of this plan.”

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And so that’s where we are now with this deeply divided board that is trying to reconcile the future of this institution with the deep distrust that the American people have developed. It’s enduring financial problems in a service crisis that really has not resolved itself.

I want to pivot back to the plan—this 10-year plan that has taken effect, at least in part. And I want to talk about how it’s changing the Postal Service and how it’s discussed by DeJoy. Who’s expected to be most affected by the slowdown in mail?

So the Postal Service won’t discuss who is going to be most affected by these mail slowdowns, which is why we did the math for them. What we found in our analysis of these slowdowns is that this is going to most affect folks on the coasts and the outer edges of the country. Why? Because we’re going to drive stuff across the country instead of flying it across the country. That’s going to take more time. So if I send something to my grandmother in Florida, that’s going to take longer than it once did. Because that letter is not going to ride in the belly of a Southwest Airlines flight on the way down there. It’s going to go in a truck, and it’s going to ride down 95. That has a big impact on consumers because think about the things that you rely on in the mail. Prescription medication is huge. Your bills, your paychecks. A lot of those are sent from centralized mail houses that are scattered around the country. They are not necessarily sent from your workplace or your doctor’s office down the street or your insurance company.

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I get emails and letters from folks all the time saying, “I got a late fee on my credit card bill because my bill didn’t show up on time.” “My prescription medications were late. I had to go to the pharmacy and beg them to fill me something.” These are the kinds of issues that folks face. And we’re about to gear up for the holiday season. What a mess that could be.

There’s been a lot of pushback about the mail slowdowns in particular and the 10-year plan generally. But I have to say when I’ve read what the postmaster has said about this shift that this plan represents, he’s trying to move the Postal Service away from mail and toward packages—

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Yes, that is the future of revenue for the post office, yes.

And that makes sense, that makes utter sense to me. I can also see why people are very skeptical of this plan because no one’s trying to compete with the Postal Service on first-class mail. That’s something that private companies don’t want a piece of. The Postal Service already does it well. So why would you try to do that less well if you’ve already cornered the market in that spot?

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Think about it a little bit more skeptically. The Postal Service has a monopoly on mail service. It does by law. FedEx can’t use your mailbox. Amazon can’t use your mailbox. The mailbox belongs to you and your mail carrier. That’s it. If nobody else can break into that market, why do you need to be more efficient in that market? If you’re going to compete with Amazon—which is building out its own distribution service, which is a huge threat to the Post Office—if you’re going to compete with FedEx and UPS, you need to offer services that truly do compete with those firms.

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The Postal Service in the package area, they rely on this thing called coopetition, which is we have to go to 161 million addresses six days a week, which means that Amazon and FedEx and UPS, if we’re already going there, they can just give us that stuff and we’ll take their money to do it. The more its competitors build out their own distribution networks, which they used the pandemic to do, the more that model no longer works for the Postal Service. They need to innovate in the package area. And frankly, they needed to do that even before the pandemic.

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Last year, I spent a lot of time reading and hearing about how the Postal Service could be updated to reflect the way the world’s changed. And the reasoning was, well, if post offices are crucial, but snail mail isn’t, let’s have a post office that provides other crucial services. Is any of that happening so far?

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So there is a pilot program underway right now to offer some expanded financial services, such as you can cash a paycheck up to $500 at four post offices on the East Coast. It’s only four of them, but it will expand in the new year. The Postal Service is pushing to get money from Congress to buy new electric mail delivery truck— up to 165,000 of them. They would also need charging stations. If you put charging stations at post offices and the trucks are not there all day because they’re out delivering the mail, then could other folks use those charging stations? And could the Postal Service collect revenue from that?

This gets back to the fundamental question of what do we expect our government to do and how active do we expect our government to be? Because putting banking services in a post office is not fundamentally about the post office. It’s about serving unbanked and underbanked constituencies. Putting electric vehicle charging stations at post offices, sure, I guess it helps the post office, but what else does it do? It takes gas-guzzling trucks off the road.

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These questions about the Postal Service, these are not necessarily about the mail, right? This is about how all of society is changing, and the Post Office is fundamental to the function of society. And so how can you leverage this fundamental institution to help more folks? And if you truly believe the government should be in the business of helping more folks, then it’s a great tool for you. If you don’t believe that’s the role of government, which a lot of people do not, then this is an agency that maybe does not need to have the same role in American society as it once did.

I immediately think of the conservatives I know who, for all their feelings about the government, really want to get their mail in two to three days. It’s not a controversial agency, really.

This is why there has been a yearslong campaign about postal policy, because this is a very attractive way to expand the role of government without using other levers of government that are less popular. The Postal Service comes to your door every day, and there’s someone in a nice little uniform, in a cute little car that waves to you and drive slowly through your neighborhood so they don’t run over your child chasing a ball through the street, and they bring you your paycheck, and they bring you medications, and they check on your in-laws. And now they want to be a bank. Oh, the poor little Postal Service wants to be a bank. The poor little Postal Service wants new trucks. You know that those are massive expansions of government’s role through a massively popular institution. And I think that is why, for one reason, conservatives kind of see through this veneer of, well, we’re just tinkering with postal policy. No, you’re not just tinkering the postal policy, you’re tinkering with so much more.

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