As if 2021 weren’t disappointing enough, the Postal Service is hitting Americans with a double whammy this month: rate hikes anda slowdown in service. As a bonus thumb in the eye, there will be additional temporary price increases running from early October through the day after Christmas. Think of it all as a really lousy early holiday gift that promises to make it harder and more expensive to get the rest of your holiday gifts delivered. How festive is that?
As customer service strategies go, this one is counterintuitive. But it is also the kind of tough love necessary to save the widely beloved Postal Service from destruction — at least according to Louis DeJoy, the not-widely beloved postmaster general.
The Postal Service has been in financial decline for years, brutalized by the market realities of an increasingly wired world. Last quarter alone, it lost $3 billion. To stanch the bleeding, Mr. DeJoy rolled out a 10-year strategy in March, chock-full of measures aimed at cutting costs and improving efficiency. A pillar of his plan is to reduce the quantity of mail sent via plane, relying more on truck transport. Depending on where you live, this could mean longer waits for everything from rent checks to birthday presents to prescription meds.
No one doubts that the Postal Service needs an overhaul. There has been much doubt, however, about whether Mr. DeJoy is the right man for the job. Among other concerns, he was previously the C.E.O. of a global transportation company and still has financial ties to the industry, prompting all kinds of questions about potential conflicts of interest.
There was also last year’s election hullabaloo. Democrats became concerned that the freshly appointed Mr. DeJoy, a mega-donor to former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, was planning to manipulate the mail-in vote on Mr. Trump’s behalf. Never have so many Americans fretted so fiercely about the state of the nation’s mail-sorting equipment. Happily, this did not come to pass, allowing the electorate to return to taking its snail mail for granted.
But concerns about Mr. DeJoy, and his reform agenda, linger. In July, the Postal Regulatory Commission advised that slowing delivery times likely would do little, if anything, to improve the service’s current financial troubles. Other critics fear the slowdown will hurt performance, undermine public confidence in the institution and drive even more customers away. “After his record of destruction, incompetence and self-dealing over the last nine months, the only plans he’s qualified to make at this point are his own retirement plans,” Porter McConnell, a co-founder of the Save the Post Office Coalition, said of Mr. DeJoy back in March.
Even if Mr. DeJoy’s reforms are on the right track, they are insufficient. To safeguard the institution’s long-term health, more needs to be done — which means Congress needs to stop dithering and lend a hand.
It is past time for lawmakers to repeal the 2006 law requiring the Postal Service to prefund its employees’ post-retirement health care benefits for more than 50 years into the future — a burden unique to the organization. Legislation aimed at lifting this mandate has languished for far too long.
The service also desperately needs to establish new revenue streams. Plenty of people have plenty of ideas. Two of the most intriguing are booze and banking.
First the booze. Thanks to a Prohibition-era law, the Postal Service is barred from shipping alcohol to consumers. Private carriers like U.P.S. and FedEx have this lucrative business all to themselves. With an eye toward leveling the playing field, Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, introduced the bipartisan United States Postal Service Shipping Equity Act in May. “It makes no sense to create a competitive disadvantage for the Postal Service by barring them from these kinds of shipments, especially given the Postal Service’s dire financial condition,” argued Ms. Speier, noting that in 2019 alone the wineries in her state shipped around 275.6 million cases of vino. This most recent version of the bill has 31 co-sponsors from both parties.
Allowing the post office into banking — make that back into banking, in which it participated for much of last century — is a more involved matter. But thanks to none other than Mr. DeJoy, it is an experiment now in progress. September saw the rollout of a pilot program in which postal outlets in four locations — Washington, D.C., Baltimore, the Bronx and Falls Church, Va. — are providing bare-bones financial services. For a small fee, customers can deposit payroll or business checks up to $500 onto a single-use “gift card” that functions like a bank debit card.
A robust postal banking system is a development that progressives, and the American Postal Workers Union, have long favored. Many Americans, especially those in lower income and minority communities, don’t trust the financial system or don’t have easy access to it. “One in four American households is unbanked or underbanked, including half of all Black households,” notes the Save the Post Office Coalition. “This leads to costly alternatives that function as a lifetime tax on accessing your own money.”
The American Postal Workers Union negotiated a banking pilot program in its 2016 contract, but the previous postmaster general declined to act on it. When Mr. DeJoy came in, the union redoubled its efforts and convinced him to give it a shot. Mr. DeJoy deserves at least a sliver of credit for giving this progressive priority a bit of space to prove itself. Postal officials are already exploring ways to expand the program.
Of course, any significant expansion would require legislation. Which means — all together now! — that Congress needs to make itself useful. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has been championing postal banking for a few years. As part of its agenda, the Save the Post Office Coalition wanted Congress to include a more expansive test program in the appropriations for the 2022 fiscal year. The group’s co-founder, Ms. McConnell, happens to be the daughter of the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, which is kind of funny when you think about it.
Republicans like the senior McConnell are often accused of trying to undermine the Postal Service, in part because of their insistence that it should operate more like a private business — not to mention periodic calls by conservatives to fully privatize it. Mr. Trump is a hard-core post office hater, frequently trashing it during his presidency. But the survival of the service should not be a partisan matter. If anything, Republicans should be itching to keep things running smoothly, since rural areas tend to suffer most when mail services falter. It is in everyone’s interest to get creative about revitalizing this vital institution — to think outside the post office box, if you will.
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