La Poste, an excellent model for other government departments?
In case you missed it, because it got so little media attention, there’s some good news from the United States Postal Service (USPS). In what was a very rare moment of bipartisan unity on a domestic issue, the U.S. Senate on March 8 passed the Postal Service Reform Act with a solid vote of 79 to 19. The House of Representatives passed the same bill in February with equally high levels of support from both parties in a vote of 342 to 92. President Joe Biden is expected to sign The law project.
While such broad support would normally be cause for skepticism about a bill’s progress if Republicans in particular backed it, it turns out that an unlikely alignment of factors helped the reform cause. the USPS. In fact, progressives would do well to seize this chance to build on the model of success and efficiency offered to Americans by a trusted and beloved government agency.
Monique Morrisseyeconomist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) who has studied the USPS closely for years, shared with me in a recent interview that she too was initially wary of the reform bill. Usually, broad support “signals something weak or ineffective, or even bad,” she said. “Not in this case.”
The central feature of the reform law is that it nullifies a onerous requirement that a 2006 law required the USPS to pre-fund employee benefits for 75 years. For years, reviews pointed out that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was crippling the agency financially.
No other government or private entity is required to fund benefits for such an extraordinarily long period. It’s no wonder the agency so many Americans rely on was constantly facing cuts, threats of higher prices and reduced services. Morrissey described the 2006 law as “fundamentally crushing the Postal Service over the past 15 years” and imposing on it an “undeserved reputation for always being in the red, or bankrupt or inefficient.”
This served right-wing purposes well. Embodying President Ronald Reagan’s infamous inaugural speech claiming that “government is not the solution to our problem; the government is the problem,” conservatives have sought for decades to thwart agencies like the USPS that provide low-cost, crucial services to Americans.
But, according to Morrissey, “the postal service is hyper-efficient” and it “delivers to more addresses with fewer…employees” than its private competitors. Unlike companies like UPS or FedEx, which only to cut services in areas that are too expensive to serve, the USPS is mandated to provide delivery services to all parts of the country. This is a critical aspect of government-run agencies: ensuring that everyone’s needs are met without regard to cost, revenue, or profit, and it’s one of the many reasons the USPS is superior to private delivery companies. “Rural areas are more dependent on postal service than urban areas,” Morrissey said.
Even more impressive, the USPS is a self-funded agency, receiving no direct government funding and feeding on its own revenue. And, since there is no requirement to siphon off profits in order to secure shareholder dividends, the USPS can do more for less.
During the pandemic, the value of the USPS to the public has become more apparent than ever. Almost overnight, Americans sharply increased their reliance on delivered groceries, medicines, and other consumer goods, and postal workers heroically stepped in to meet their needs.
More recently, the Biden administration used the USPS as a very efficient and successful distribution system for free at-home COVID tests to any Americans who wanted them, through a website run by the USPS, COVIDtests.gov. La Poste delivered more than 270 million tests to Americans in just a few weeks.
A RAND survey of the agency’s performance during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the public gave it high marks. The vast majority of respondents trusted the service more than its private counterparts, and RAND researchers specifically cited its “universal obligation to provide service at every delivery point in the United States, whether profitable or not”.
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Republicans highly politicized the Postal Service about its role in helping Americans vote. An incredibly high percentage of Americans who voted in elections – nearly half –sent by mail ballots using the postal service. the ease and efficiency postal voting have been seen as a problem by a party that has increasingly relied on restrict voting as a path to power.
Now, seemingly seeing the light, Republicans and Democrats have come together to pass the Postal Service Reform Act, scrapping the prefunding of benefits that had fueled anti-USPS criticism for years. One possible reason the GOP may not have fought the bill is that the vote did not take place close enough to an election to prompt mail-in ballot complaints. And, it may also be that the party realizes that its voters, who are disproportionately older, rely heavily on mail-in voting.
Another reason the GOP hasn’t fought the bill is that current Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee who Morrissey admitted isn’t a fan, “seems really wanting to keep the job, and so he hasn’t always been on the wrong side of things.” DeJoy, who had to be under fire for removing hundreds of bulk mail sorting machines in 2020 in what many feared was a deliberate ploy to hamper the agency, actually lobbied for the Postal Service Reform Act, securing support republican.
Yet it is not as if the postmaster general had suddenly decided to devote himself to the public interest. Morrissey quoted a problematic contract of 11.3 billion dollars that DeJoy recently signed to upgrade the Postal Service’s fleet of vehicles. Disturbingly, 90% of new vehicles, as per contract, would be gas guzzling cars and trucks rather than electric. USPS vehicles “should be the first, not the last, to be electric,” Morrissey said. The timing of such a contract, given recent sharp increases in gas prices, couldn’t be worse, and Democratic lawmakers are now threatening to launch an investigation.
Still, the potential for expansion of the successful USPS model is great, and more lawmakers are taking notice. MP Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, a USPS veteran herself, floated the idea of turning post offices into electric vehicle (EV) charging station sites. There is an urgent need to build such charging infrastructure nationwide in order to shift to renewable and fuel-efficient cars. With post offices spread evenly across the country, their expansion into electric vehicle charging centers would go hand-in-hand with the transition of all Postal Service vehicles to electric. The USPS could charge its vehicles overnight, while customers could charge their cars during the day.
Despite the negative actions of those who seek to sabotage the Postal Service, the example this successful agency sets for us on other fronts is also critically important. If a government-run provider can provide an essential service to the public with a high level of confidence and efficiency, and at low cost, we can and should see it as a valid model for other desperately needed government services, such than Health care, banking, guaranteed basic incomeand more.
Opponents will point out that mail delivery is hardly comparable to needs as complex as health care or banking services. But the private companies that dominate these industries have proven incapable of providing adequate services to meet the needs of the American people. Compared to other countries, most of which have publicly funded health care systems, the United States is doing terribly on the delivery of care. And, areas with lower access to health care have led to a disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths, according to a study.
There are similar problems in the banking sector. Private banks are famous to take advantage of the poor, especially by using debt as leverage to extract more money from vulnerable Americans. Now a movement to build a public banking system is gaining momentum in states like California. Even more exciting, the Postal service begins to offer limited banking services in certain areas.
Reagan was wrong. The government is not the problem. Government can be the solution.