In early November, after news organizations called the Presidential race for Joe Biden, throngs of revelers poured into the streets, where they cheered not only for the new President-elect, but for the United States Postal Service (USPS), which had overcome enormous obstacles to deliver mail-in ballots largely on time amidst a raging global pandemic. Shouts of “USPS” erupted in New York City and a child dressed as a USPS mailbox danced in the streets of Oakland, California.
In the weeks leading up to the election, U.S. Postal workers had worked around the clock, often risking their personal safety, to sift through mail-in ballots, trying to reassure voters that, despite President Trump’s attacks on their agency, voting by mail was safe, secure, and wouldn’t lead to accidental disenfranchisement. When those fears never materialized, the Postal Service’s performance was saluted, with relief.
But as the Presidential election has faded in the rearview mirror, the underlying issues that stoked anxiety about the efficacy of the USPS remain—even as the public and the news cycle has largely moved on. The agency’s finances are still precarious; its 644,000 person workforce remains exhausted and depleted as thousands quarantine after exposure to COVID-19; and with Christmas fast approaching, USPS facilities are, as one Postal union representative put it in a text message to TIME, “buried and short staffed.”
Nearly all of the factors that were conspiring to cripple the USPS prior to the November election remain unchanged. Louis DeJoy, the Trump donor who was appointed Postmaster General by the agency’s governing board last spring, has no fixed term limit. His tenure is subject to the nine-member Board of Governors. There are currently five members on the board, all of whom were appointed by Trump and will continue to serve after the Biden Administration takes over. DeJoy’s controversial moves, which yielded multiple investigations and federal injunctions, coincided with Trump’s expressed desire to withhold funding for the Postal Service in an effort to thwart mail-in voting. (DeJoy swore under oath to lawmakers that he was not influenced by the President, and his decisions were purely financial).
“It would be a problem if people took a deep breath and said, ‘Ok, we got through this election and everything’s fine,’” says Mark Dimondstein, President of the American Postal Workers Union. “Because there are still big challenges ahead.”
With just weeks left on the job, Trump is moving quickly to shore up his Administration’s legacy at the USPS. On Dec. 14, he nominated to the Board of Governors Roy Bernardi, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a longtime Republican donor. Campaign finance records show that in 2007, Bernardi, a former Mayor of Syracuse, New York, donated $2,300 to the Presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani, who is now Trump’s personal attorney and the architect of the President’s failed attempt to overturn the Presidential election. In 2020, Bernardi donated just $250 to the Trump campaign, according to financial disclosure filings.
Should the Senate confirm Bernardi, the Republican majority on the Postal Service’s Board of Governors will be cemented until the next vacancy arises in December 2021, bolstering support for DeJoy’s cost-cutting initiatives. Already, the agency is appealing the federal injunction that halted the implementation of the cut-cuts in the weeks before the 2020 Election.
S. David Fineman, a Philadelphia-based attorney and former chairman of the USPS Board of Governors, says DeJoy’s leadership has perhaps permanently politicized the once neutral agency. “As long as he’s the head of [USPS], you can’t depoliticize the Postal Service,” he says. “If you have a mega-donor to the Republican Party still there, people lose confidence.”
David Partenheimer, a spokesperson for the USPS, says that DeJoy will remain in his current position for the “foreseeable future.” “The Postmaster General is not a political appointee, and his term is not affected by a Presidential transition,” he wrote in an e-mail to TIME. “The Postal Service has customers and employees on every point on the political spectrum, and the Postmaster General is fully committed to serving and leading them.”
Financial woes persist
In November, the USPS reported that it suffered a net loss of $9.2 billion in fiscal year 2020. That’s up $363 million in losses from 2019, largely because the pandemic triggered a precipitous decline in letter mail, a key source of the agency’s revenue that was not entirely offset by a corresponding increase in package deliveries.
In spring, the USPS Board of Governors pleaded with Congress to allocate $75 billion to the struggling agency. But Trump’s White House balked at the number, and counter-offered a $10 billion loan, which was included in the $2.3 trillion federal relief package that passed last March. Lawmakers are currently negotiating over whether the government will transform that loan into a grant. But even if that happens, Dimondstein says, the $10 billion federal infusion would be as a Band-Aid on the agency’s longer term financial problems.
In 2006, Congress passed, by voice vote, legislation requiring the USPS to pre-fund its employees retirement healthcare benefits—a requirement that no other entity, public or private, must meet, and that costs the agency more than $5 billion per year. In 2019, the progressive Institute for Policy Studies noted that without this mandate, the USPS would have been profitable for six years. In February, the Democrat-led House passed a bill eliminating the requirement, but the Republican-led Senate did not follow-up.
Fixing the agency’s endemic structural problems requires Congressional action. But with a hobbled economy and the challenging logistics of vaccination distributions, it is difficult to imagine reform of the USPS clearing the top of the legislative agenda.
But postal advocates see reasons for optimism. The Postal Service remains overwhelmingly popular with the American public so a reform agenda could attract bipartisan support. “[The USPS] is the one thing in America we seem to agree on,” says Jim Sauber, the chief of staff at the National Association of Letter Carriers. “It strikes me that if you want to built trust and momentum the postal service would be a great place to start.”
Biden’s transition team has also already assembled a Postal Service review committee that has reached out to USPS senior management, the leaders of the postal unions and trade associations, and legislative staffers on Capitol Hill. Sauber, who is a member of Biden’s review team, recalled Trump assembling a similar committee four years ago, but said they never reached out to his union. The review team is being led by former Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman, who resigned shortly after DeJoy’s appointment.
“The [Biden] Administration can help set a very different political tone,” says Dimondstein, the head of APWU. “Its much harder for [DeJoy] to make cuts if there’s not a message from above that the Postal Service is a joke, as was the message at the Trump White House.”
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