As COVID-19 case counts continue to climb, it becomes more and more likely that widespread vote-by-mail will be essential come November.
The problem? The U.S. Postal Service might not last that long.
Though the independent agency celebrated Sunday 245 years since its creation in 1775, the future is not rosy for USPS. Without congressional intervention, it could run out of funds as soon as late September.
A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year labeled the Postal Service as America’s favorite government agency, with a healthy 91% approval rating. People like getting mail, and people like getting mail on time. It’s as American as anything.
“The Postal Service is like Social Security — it’s beloved by everybody,” Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, told The New York Times. “If the president or anyone else is seen as trying to debilitate or eliminate the Postal Service, they’ll pay a huge political price.”
It seems the Postal Service is already paying a price. A leaked memo from the postmaster general to postal workers two weeks ago revealed instructions to prize efficiency over quality, in some cases allowing mail carriers to leave mail at the office, if necessary, to stay on schedule with their route.
Congress was quick to react. Letters from both the House and the Senate called for the postmaster general to reconsider the policy. A letter from House Democrats said USPS is acting like a “private company concerned only with the bottom line, rather than the constitutionally mandated public service that it is.”
The bottom line matters a lot in this situation, though. Between a misguided policy mandating prefunded pensions for all postal workers and decreasing volumes of mail as the world shifts toward a digital economy, the service hasn’t turned a net profit since 2006.
The rise of private mail carriers with competitive rates — like UPS, FedEx and Amazon Prime — are also a threat. And the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic does no favors. In April, the agency’s Board of Governors projected a $22 billion loss in revenues over the next 18 months.
Sen. Chuck Schumer called for a $25 billion investment to keep the agency afloat — more than twice the size of what was discussed as part of the first stimulus package in March, which was blocked by an ultimatum from the administration to quadruple delivery rates.
The U.S. has arguably never needed its Postal Service more. November’s election could be a train wreck without a functioning and reliable mail delivery system, especially if three-fourths of American voters or more elect to cast their ballots by mail.
Saving the Postal Service will require a mix of short-term lending and long-term overhauls. It’s not a time to play politics, as some in Washington have already done.
The 2020 economic crisis will serve as a wake-up call for structural innovations. As we have argued before, lawmakers should adopt the recommendations of a 2016 report to Congress detailing how to restructure USPS for a financially solvent future. The report includes measures such as shortening the delivery week and expanding nonpostal services, such as banking, drivers’ license services and public internet access.
However the solution comes about, America needs a functioning Postal Service. And if the country hasn’t learned that by now, it will learn the hard way come November.