It’s no secret the modern Republican Party’s first overriding principle is that government is the largest problem facing America today. Pretty much all their current philosophy stems from this central tenet. Less government is better. Now this of course, like anything else, is still fraught with caveats. Republicans tend to spend just as much money as Democrats, especially at the state and city levels. It costs money to govern, and no matter how much Republicans will complain about government spending, they too like what spending can bring them, especially in the realm of votes. But the basic creed of the GOP since the 1970s is that governments are inefficient and useless, and they prove that by purposely sabotaging what actually works in government. In recent years, one of their biggest targets has been the Postal Service. And I’m not talking about the band, either. Though I’m sure the Republicans would find things to hate about them, too.
First, let’s go over some history. Hang in there, it won’t take long. The United States Post Office Department was one of the few governmental bodies officially mandated by the Constitution. Throughout the formation of the initial colonies, post offices were formed and disintegrated, but it was always understood how important they were to a functioning society. After the founding of the United States, and its aforementioned Constitution, the Postal Service Act was signed into law by President Washington on February 20, 1792. The Post Office Department was made into a quasi-cabinet department by Andrew Jackson in 1829, then a full cabinet seat in 1872.
For years, the Post Office was one of the bedrock foundations of the US Government, and generally held up as an example of a “good government program.” There were, however, occasional issues. In 1970, after years of declining conditions and low wages, the New York chapter of the postal union started a strike that would eventually encompass most of the country and over 200,000 workers. Eventually, the strike ended without any firings, the 4 postal unions won full collective bargaining rights, and the Postal Reorganization Act was signed by President Nixon. It turned the U.S. Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service, an organization structured much more like a corporation. For the most part, the new setup worked. The USPS enjoyed a monopoly over letter service, and generally worked efficiently. The USPS took in no taxpayer funds and still enjoyed annual budget surpluses for years. The USPS was entirely funded by stamps and fees, with the exception of a small amount of advertising costs. Pay improved from the low point in the early ’70s, and the health benefits and wages enjoyed by postal workers made it an ideal career for hundreds of thousands of Americans. So, just to be clear, a large government program that has been fiscally self-sufficient, somewhat independent, and generally well-run. What’s not to like? Well…
So what’s happening now? How could such a successful organization falter so badly in recent years? There are a few reasons why the USPS is seeing a decrease in revenue and deliveries, many of which involve the advent of e-mail and the internet in general. The modern world is eating at the edges, just a bit.
However, even with changes in the way Americans communicate, the USPS should still be showing a profit. They’re not, almost entirely due to a huge knife to the back, courtesy of the GOP (and a few well-meaning but disastrously clueless Democrats). Back in 2006, the Republican Congress, spearheaded by one Darrell Issa of California (whose corruption and general moustache-twirling villainy I’ve discussed before), took it upon themselves to teach the Postal Service some good old-fashioned capitalist responsibility. Or, more accurately, they found enough votes to ram through legislation that would seriously weaken, and eventually cripple, one of the best examples of a successful government organization. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) of 2006 required, among many other things, that the USPS fund its retiree health obligations for the next 75 years, and to get that done within 10 years. This amounts to 5.5 billion dollars every year for a decade. And yes, 75 years worth of retiree benefits translates to benefits for people who haven’t even been born yet. No other governmental body, or for that matter, no business, is required to pre-fund benefits for potential retirees 3/4 of a century into the future.
Putting aside funds for pensions is a smart thing to do, and it makes sense to require some sort of interest-gaining lockbox for those type of funds. Actually, at the time, the USPS did have a sizeable budget surplus, and was having no issue meeting obligations for employee pensions.
So Darrell Issa found a way to kneecap the best example of governmental competence, and he did it under the guise of “fiscal responsibility.” And the results have been predictable. For a few years, the USPS managed to cough up the extra 5.5 billion, but by 2011, it had fallen 20 billion in the red… which is close to the amount it was forced to pay into the retiree fund. Meaning, the USPS would still have been financially viable, despite losing ground to UPS and Fed Ex, and despite internet bill pay becoming increasingly prevalent. And even the recession on top of all that was unable to keep the Postal Service from turning a profit. Nope, it took the people who insist that government is just no good to bring it to its knees.
In addition, an error in accounting by the Office of Personnel Management overcharged the USPS for its contributions to the Civil Service Retirement System – by the tune of up to $80 billion. So, forgiving the Post Office either the overpayments into the treasury, or the billions already paid into their future retiree’s health plans – and all of a sudden, crisis averted. It wouldn’t even have to be both. The USPS has been financially hosed twice, and fixing either situation would bring them back into solvency.
The Republicans have been crowing over the perceived failures of the Postal Service, making sure to blame all of the current woes on internal financial mismanagement.
Well, now what? The Postal Service has been forced to close rural offices, cut positions, and has been seriously discussing cutting Saturday letter service. Mail sorting centers may be on the chopping block. Other cuts are going to be necessary, and multiple Republicans have openly called for increased privatization of the mail industry. Essentially, the USPS is being picked apart, thanks to anti-government zealots from within the government. And it’s not just the several hundred thousand employees of the USPS that will suffer. Most Americans rely on mail service of some sort, especially in rural areas. We will all see longer wait times and eventual higher costs. If the GOP gets its way, and completely kills the USPS, expect to see vastly higher mail costs in the future.
The USPS does not need to be saddled with a burden that no other government agency (or business for that matter) has to deal with. Repealing the PAEA would be a great first step. Or at least altering it to reduce the burden on the struggling organization. This is not likely to happen. If the President suggests it, then the likely backlash will be that every Tea Party member in the House will scream that he’s a tyrant and a socialist and probably kicks puppies in his spare time. Then John Boehner will make some comment about “presidential overreach.” Eventually it will drop as an issue and be forgotten. But the problems remain.
In the end, the Republicans, so excited to prove that government doesn’t work, are sabotaging a perfectly serviceable organization in order to prove themselves right. And it’s working.
We don’t have to stand for it. The Postal Service is not a sexy organization. It doesn’t have the hardware of the military, nor does it deal with disasters like FEMA. But it’s one of the oldest, most stable, and most useful government services. And it’s actually mandated by the U.S. Constitution. This is not something we should just give up on. There’s no good reason to kill it. Letting ideologues destroy it for no reason is what we’re doing. Talk about this issue. Write letters (while you still can). Donate to campaigns. Fight to save the United States Postal Service. And, petty as the impulse is, it would be nice to kick a little political sand in Darrell Issa’s face.
What I have written is the briefest of overviews. For more good information on this topic, please consult these fine links: