As part of legislation dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Congress should ensure that mail carriers can continue to make their appointed rounds.
For nearly 250 years, postal delivery has been a reliable facet of American life. Deemed so essential that it is included in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8), the United States Postal Service visits about 100 million addresses six days a week, routinely earning high marks in public opinion polls.
For many, particularly in rural areas, mail delivery is nothing less than a lifeline. It brings medications and pension checks and, in several states, election ballots. While many of the Postal Service’s functions have become outdated in this digital age, the old-fashioned way of doing things retains some benefits — at least until somebody figures out how to deliver a prescription through the internet.
Now, however, the Postal Service is on the verge of collapse, facing pressure from long-standing political fights and its relatively archaic business model. That pressure has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak, and Postmaster General Megan Brennan recently told Congress that the service could run out of money by the end of September.
For President Donald Trump and many conservatives in Congress, that would be a welcome occurrence. Trump often has expressed hostility toward the service, in part because he claims it provides preferential rates to Amazon, which he has targeted as a political enemy. The president’s own task force has determined that package delivery is profitable for the Postal Service, but Trump’s attacks on the agency dovetail with long-held Republican desires to turn mail delivery over to private companies.
For all Americans, that would be a disappointing abdication on the part of the federal government. For rural Americans, it would be disastrous; delivery to rural areas would not be profitable for private companies, leading to questions about how the good people of say, Yacolt, would receive their mail.
All of that must be weighed against the fact that the Postal Service — designed to be a self-sustaining quasi-public enterprise — has operated at a deficit of $69 billion over the past 11 years. The agency’s unfunded liabilities and debts stood at $143 billion at the end of fiscal year 2018.
The Postal Service’s troubles did not begin with the coronavirus pandemic. The agency has seen a steady decline in demand for its services, from a peak of 103.6 billion pieces of mail in 2001 to 54.9 billion pieces last year. But a decline in demand does not render it nonessential; while offices have been closed and services trimmed over the years, the Postal Service continues to deliver through snow and rain and heat and gloom of night while employing more than 600,000 people.
Typically, when the Postal Service is facing hard times, Congress is willing to step in. In 2013, when officials announced they would do away with Saturday delivery, lawmakers inserted a provision in that year’s budget to block the move.
But given President Trump’s enmity toward the Postal Service, a boost from Congress will be more difficult this time around. The president has warned that the inclusion of bailout money in a coronavirus bill will result in a veto; Congress should test that hypothesis. Meanwhile, the Protect Our Post Offices Act (H.R. 6425) is under consideration in the House of Representatives.
Throughout the coronavirus-related shutdown, the Postal Service has continued to deliver. That indicates its status as an essential agency — a status that Congress should be quick to reinforce.