Civics 101: United States Postal Service

Contributed by Maddy Berlin.

How often have you worried or complained about the US Postal Service (USPS) over the past months, or year….or years?  How often have you heard others complain or negatively comment about service in recent times?  

Probably a lot. 

The USPS came starkly into view with the increase in anxiety over the impact to mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, when the post office chose that particular time to curtail service, or to announce confusing messages about stamped vs. non-stamped ballots and delivery issues.  Rumors were flying, and trying to understand the facts seemed daunting. 

We got through the November election, but then packages and letters were delayed or not arriving at all. Many of us have personal stories about holiday cards and packages going undelivered or arriving weeks late, or social security, disability and pension checks not arriving or mail order meds never showing up. 

The USPS is so important to us, and as much as we may like to complain about it, the USPS is the service we love and want sustained. So what is going on?  

At the top of the mess is the current Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee with a mandate to cut costs and improve efficiency; he actually seems intent on crippling and disabling the agency – probably in support of a Republican plan to privatize the service. Within one month of his May 2020 appointment, he implemented rapid fire change by slashing overtime hours, prohibiting late and extra mail delivery trips, setting stricter delivery schedules and removing mailboxes and sorting machines. More than 7.5 percent of the first-class mail was late in the five weeks that followed, and experience tells us that it probably became even worse. 

So, fire him, I said. Not so simple, I was told. I decided to do some research about how the USPS is structured, how it’s governed and to take a look at what ails it financially and what can be done.  Here, in a nutshell, is what I learned.

In 1971, Congress replaced the Post Office Department, a Cabinet position, with the United States Postal Service, an independent entity within the Executive Branch. The USPS is normally operated by a 11 person Board of Governors – the Postmaster General, Deputy Postmaster General and nine governors. The President appoints the nine governors, with Senate approval for seven year terms, and the Board appoints the Postmaster General  who acts as the CEO. The Deputy Postmaster General is appointed by the Board and the Postmaster General. Currently there are six governors, all Trump appointed. There are four vacancies: three governors and the Deputy Postmaster position all need to be filled.

Financially, the USPS receives no taxpayer money and relies solely on revenue from postage and other services.  While it’s worth noting that Covid-related revenue shortfalls have impacted the USPS’s financials, other factors have plagued the post office as well.  In 2006 Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act during a lame-duck session. Under this law, the USPS was required to pre-fund 75 years worth of retiree pension and health care benefits in the span of roughly 10 years! This is utterly absurd, no other entity has this requirement. The USPS generates enough revenue to cover its operating costs but those funding expenses mean the agency has been operating at a loss for years with little hope of digging themselves out without assistance.

The USPS Fairness Act, passed in the House in 2019 and stalled in the Senate, has been re-introduced and is gaining momentum (interestingly, PA Rep Brian Fitzpatrick is a co-sponsor). The bill would forgive the debt the USPS accumulated while trying to comply with the imposed pre-funding obligation.

Back to firing DeJoy: this is not a clean-cut process.  As noted, the President does not have the power to remove the Postmaster General. Only the Postal Service Board of Governors has the power to do so.  DeJoy continues to have the support of the Trump-appointed board and has stated he plans on staying in his position and moving ahead with his plans. Some lawmakers want Biden to take drastic action by firing the entire board. In fact, New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell (D) wrote a letter to President Biden asking for the entire Board of Governors to be fired. The Board can be fired for “cause,” but it’s possible that process could be difficult or tricky.  The President has not responded to that request to date.

President Biden does have the power to nominate members of the board, however, and to send them to the Senate — now led by Democrats — for confirmation, so there’s another strategy.  As noted, there are three vacancies plus one member who is serving a hold-over term which means the President can replace him at any time so there are a total of FOUR seats Biden can fill with Democrats. There is an excellent chance his nominees would be approved in the current Senate. If Biden can fill four seats that would flip the Board to a 5-4 Democrat majority and they could remove DeJoy.  

USPS Factoids.

  • The First US Postmaster General was Benjamin Franklin, appointed by the Second Continental Congress in 1775. 
  • The Pony Express was never part of the US Postal Service
  • 182 million pieces of first class mail are processed and delivered everyday 
  • There are more than 7.3 million postal service employees
  • The USPS has the largest robotic system in the world

CALL TO ACTION:  Let our MOC’s know we support the USPS Fairness Act. Let the Office of the President and our MOC’s know that we are in favor of turning over the USPS Board of Governors either by firing them or by urging President Biden to fill vacancies ASAP.

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