A reality-based look at Trump and the post office
| August 16, 2020 08:47 PM
The news is filled with reports of President Trump's "assault" on the U.S. Postal Service. The president, Democrats and some in the media say, is deliberately slowing mail delivery and crippling the Postal Service so that it cannot handle an anticipated flood of voting by mail in the presidential election. Former President Barack Obama said Trump is trying to "actively kneecap" the Postal Service to suppress the vote. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the House back into session this week and has set an "urgent hearing" for Aug. 24, demanding Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the head of the Postal Service Board of Governors testify "to address the sabotage of the Postal Service."
Some of the accusations have grown so frantic that they resemble the frenzy of a couple of years ago over the allegation, from many of the same people, that Trump had conspired with Russia to fix the 2016 election. Now, it's the Postal Service. But what, actually, is going on? Here is a brief look at some of the issues involved.
142.5 billion pieces of mail
The idea that the Postal Service will not be able to handle the volume of mail in the election, or not be able to handle it within normal Postal Service time guidelines, does not make much sense. According to its most recent annual report, last year, in fiscal year 2019, the Postal Service handled 142.5 billion pieces of mail. "On a typical day, our 633,000 employees physically process and deliver 471 million mailpieces to nearly 160 million delivery points," the report says. This year, that number is higher, given the Postal Service's delivery of census forms and stimulus checks. Those alone added about 450 million additional pieces of mail.
In 2016, about 136 million Americans voted in the presidential election. The number will probably be a bit higher this year. If officials sent ballots to every single American registered to vote, about 158 million people, and then 140 million people returned ballots, the roughly 298 million pieces of mail handled over the course of several weeks would be well within the Postal Service's ability to handle. Of course, officials will not send a ballot to every American registered to vote, and not every voter will vote by mail. Whatever the final number is, the ballots that are cast by mail will not cripple a system that delivers 471 million pieces of mail every day.
There are, of course, compelling examples of election dysfunction, most notably the mess New York made of some of its congressional primaries this summer. But rather than representing a Postal Service problem, that was because some states are unprepared for a dramatic increase of voting by mail. The states have to prepare the ballots, address them, and process and count them when the Postal Service delivers them. That is the focus of the entirely legitimate fears of a possible vote-counting disaster this year. But it's not the Postal Service.
$25 billion for what?
Some news reports have left the impression that the Postal Service will not be able to handle mail-in ballots without an immediate infusion of money from Congress. That is not the case.
The Postal Service is not funded by a regular appropriation. It is, instead, an "independent agency" and is expected to support itself, beyond a yearly appropriation of about $55 million to cover the costs of mail for the blind and overseas balloting in elections.
The Postal Service has lost money for a very long time. In fiscal year 2019, it had operating revenues of $71.1 billion and operating expenses of $79.9 billion, leaving it with a deficit of $8.8 billion. At the moment, Postal Service officials have told Congress, it has about $14 billion in cash on hand, putting it on the road to fiscal insolvency (without further aid) in late 2021.
In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief measure passed in March, Congress gave the Postal Service a $10 billion borrowing authority. After the bill became law, there were negotiations between the Postal Service and the Treasury Department on the terms of the borrowing; a deal was announced in July. The ability to borrow $10 billion, the postmaster general said, would "delay the approaching liquidity crisis."
That was all the aid for the Postal Service in the CARES Act. Completely separately, the bill also gave $400 million to something called the Election Assistance Commission for distribution to states to "prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 federal election cycle."
The next mega-relief package, a $3 trillion bill known as the Health and Economic Recover Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, was passed by the House in May by a vote of 208 to 199. The winning total of 208 votes was comprised of 207 Democrats and one Republican. Fourteen Democrats and one independent voted against the measure. The bill has so far gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The House HEROES Act would give $25 billion to the Postal Service in what is essentially a bailout. The bill mentions nothing about helping the Postal Service handle the upcoming election or any other election. Indeed, the only stipulation at all placed on the $25 billion is that the Postal Service, "during the coronavirus emergency, shall prioritize the purchase of, and make available to all Postal Service employees and facilities, personal protective equipment, including gloves, masks, and sanitizers, and shall conduct additional cleaning and sanitizing of Postal Service facilities and delivery vehicles." If the House Democrats who wrote and passed the bill intended the money to be spent specifically for elections, they did not say so in the text of the legislation.
Separate from the Postal Service provisions, the bill would give $3.6 billion to the Election Assistance Commission for distribution to states "for contingency planning, preparation, and resilience of elections for federal office." There has been some confusion about that; some discussion of the current controversy has left the impression that Democrats want $3.6 billion for the Postal Service for the election. In fact, the $3.6 billion would be for the states' election use. In neither the CARES Act, which is now law, nor the HEROES Act, which has been passed by the House but not the Senate, is there any money given to the Postal Service specifically for the election. In any event, the Postal Service has the capacity to handle the election and does not need any additional money specifically to do the job.
The latest reform proposal
Whatever its other concerns at the moment, the Postal Service does have chronic financial problems. This year, Trump chose DeJoy, who made a fortune in shipping and logistics and whose former company was a contractor of the Postal Service for many years, as the new postmaster general. (DeJoy is also a major donor to Republicans and the Trump campaign.) DeJoy has attempted to deal with some of the Postal Service's systemic problems with a pilot program to make deliveries more efficient while reducing the Postal Service's crippling overtime costs, which added up to more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2018.
In the past, postal delivery worked this way: A worker would arrive in the morning and work on various things in the office — sorting mail, handling holds on mail, waiting for incoming mail to arrive to prepare for delivery. That often involved waiting around for hours and then starting an actual delivery route later in the day. Once started, a route has to be finished, and that involved workers going into overtime as they delivered through their route as evening approached.
DeJoy's plan, now being implemented in a pilot program in about 200 cities, is called Expedited to Street/Afternoon Sortation, or ESAS. Under it, a worker would arrive in the morning, collect all the mail that was ready to go out, and head out for delivery — "retrieve, load, and go." Then, after finishing the delivery route, the carrier would return to the office and do in the afternoon the office work that used to be done in the morning. That way, when the end of his or her shift arrived, that would be the end of the workday, with no overtime incurred. Mail that arrived to the office in the afternoon, while the carrier was doing office work, would be delivered in the next morning's route. It would be ready and waiting when the carrier arrived for "retrieve, load, and go."
The effect to customers would be that mail that was delivered to the office in the afternoon would be delivered the next morning, instead of that evening. The effect to the Postal Service would be to save an enormous amount of money in overtime.
In addition, there have been reports of the Postal Service removing collection boxes and sorting machines. While some Democrats and journalists have portrayed that as another effort toward voter suppression, the fact is the number of letters the Postal Service handles each year has declined for 20 years since the arrival of email. In those last two decades, the Postal Service has downsized its capabilities as the number of letters handled has decreased. Here is how the Washington Post described the situation, specifically concerning sorting machines: "Purchased when letters not packages made up a greater share of postal work, the bulky and aging machines can be expensive to maintain and take up floor space postal leaders say would be better devoted to boxes. Removing underused machines would make the overall system more efficient, postal leaders say. The Postal Service has cut back on mail-sorting equipment for years since mail volume began to decline in the 2000s."
Some Democrats have characterized the current reform efforts, much needed in an agency losing so much money, as part of the president's master plan to steal the election. But together, the Expedited to Street/Afternoon Sortation program and the cutback in sorting capacity would seem to be reasonable measures of the type the Postal Service needs to implement, and indeed has been implementing over the years. Yet this is what Democrats, and some of their allies in the press, have labeled as an "assault" on the Postal Service.
Many news accounts have included stories of Americans suffering from interruptions in Postal Service deliveries. For example, a story in the New York Times headlined "Postal Crisis Ripples Across Nation As Election Looms" included the story of Victoria Brownworth, a freelance journalist in Philadelphia. "For Ms. Brownworth, who was paralyzed four years ago, the mail is her lifeline," the New York Times said, "delivering prescriptions and checks and mail-in ballots to her Philadelphia home. But that lifeline has snapped. She said she had received mail just twice in the past three weeks, and she dreaded November's election, worried that her ballot would suffer the same fate as the oxygen tube that she ordered three weeks ago — and that had still not arrived."
Other news reports have included many other examples. They are largely, if not entirely, anecdotal. While each is serious for the person involved, at the moment, it is impossible to tell how much of a national problem they represent. People who keep track of the Postal Service suspect that many of the stories are rooted in workforce availability problems related to the coronavirus pandemic, plus the changes in operations (for example, closing a facility to clean it during an outbreak) that have become part of life during the pandemic. The Postal Service would not be the only large organization that has found it impossible to operate as usual during the crisis.
There is also the fact that the Postal Service does, on occasion, fail to deliver the mail. In its annual reports, it includes data on "performance outcomes." For example, for first-class mail, which is the type of mail that would be most employed for election purposes, the goal in fiscal year 2019 was to deliver 96% of letters in one to three business days. Its actual performance was 92%. So 8% of first-class letters were not delivered on time. Now, consider that the Postal Service handled 54.9 billion pieces of first-class mail in fiscal year 2019. That is more than 4 billion pieces of first-class mail that were not delivered on time. And that, in a fraught political situation, could be the basis for a lot of anecdotes in news articles.
Many of those anecdotes, by the way, appear to have made it to the media with the help of the Postal Service unions. There are two major unions representing Postal Service workers. On Friday, the largest postal union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, endorsed Democratic candidate Joe Biden for president. In June, another union, the American Postal Workers Union, endorsed Biden as well. In 2016, both unions endorsed Hillary Clinton. In 2008 and 2012, both unions endorsed Barack Obama. In 2004, they endorsed John Kerry. And so on.
One more note about delivery times. A few days ago, the Washington Post published a story headlined "Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots." The paper obtained letters from Postal Service leadership to various states informing them that some of their election deadlines are "incongruous with the Postal Service's delivery standards." The resulting "mismatch," the Postal Service said, "creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them." In other words, several states are not giving the Postal Service long enough to deliver a ballot to a voter and then deliver the filled-in ballot to the state election board. For example, if a state's law allows a voter to request a ballot seven days before the general election but also requires that votes must be received by election day to be counted — that would be a recipe for a lot of votes not being counted. It was an entirely reasonable concern on the part of the Postal Service, and it is a problem more for the states than the Postal Service. Yet media discussion of the story suggested it was just another chapter in what one source in the Washington Post account called "the weaponization of the U.S. Postal Service for the president's electoral purposes."
Trump confuses everything
Despite the heated rhetoric, many of the Postal Service's problems are relatively clear, if extremely difficult to solve. In the context of the upcoming election, Trump has repeatedly added confusion to the situation, most recently with extended discussions in a television interview on Thursday and a press conference on Friday.
In the press conference, Trump was asked, "If the Democrats were to give you some of what you want ... would you be willing to accept the $25 billion for the Postal Service, including the three and a half billion dollars to handle mail-in voting?" As has happened many times in this controversy, the question conflated the Democrats' proposal for $25 billion for the Postal Service and the request for $3.6 billion for the Election Assistance Commission. In any event, Trump answered, "Sure, if they give us what we want." He then began to elaborate on other policy priorities.
"So, if they were to give you that, you would sign off for the money for the Postal Service?"
"Yeah, but they're not giving it to me," Trump said. "They're giving it to the American people."
"But if they were to agree to that — "
"Yeah, I would," Trump said. "I would certainly do that. Sure, I would do that. Yeah."
The next day, Friday, Trump spoke to Fox News's Maria Bartiromo. "They [Democrats] want $3.5 billion for the mail-in votes, OK, universal mail-in ballots, $3.5 billion," Trump said. "They want $25 billion for the post office. Now, they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now in the meantime, they aren't getting there. By the way, those are just two items. But if they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting because they're not equipped to have it."
In fact, while the $3.5 billion proposal for the Election Assistance Commission (it is actually $3.6 billion) is specifically for the purpose of facilitating mail-in voting, the $25 billion for the Postal Service is basically a bailout. In April, the previous postmaster general, Megan Brennan, citing a "steep drop" in mail volume during the coronavirus crisis, had asked for far more — $75 billion. The Postal Service didn't get anywhere near that much money in the first relief bill, the CARES Act — just $10 billion in borrowing authority. So when the second relief mega-bill came up, Democrats threw in $25 billion for the Postal Service. It was not about mail-in voting. (On Sunday morning, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who as a congressman followed postal issues closely, said the administration offered House Democrats $10 billion for the Postal Service.)
Nevertheless, the president connected the two and suggested that the Postal Service needed the $25 billion, and the Election Assistance Commission needed $3.5 billion, to handle ballots in the election, and that he would not give it to them for that very reason.
"How would you like to have $3.5 billion, billion, for mail-in voting?" Trump asked. "So, if you don't have it — do you know how much money that is? Nobody has any idea ... Oh, $3.5 billion. They want $25 billion for the Post Office because the Post Office is going to have to go to town to get these ridiculous ballots in ... Now, if we don't make a deal, that means they don't get the money. That means they can't have universal mail-in voting. They just can't have it."
The bottom line was that Trump made a mess of the issue. He didn't make a case against universal mail-in voting, which does not exist in the United States. He didn't make clear why Democrats wanted $25 billion for the post office. He suggested that not agreeing to the $25 billion was a way to stop universal mail-in voting, which it is not. He didn't address the serious problems at the Postal Service which need attention and do not have anything to do with voting. In all, he left the issue more confused than it had been beforehand — and that was saying something.
Democrats smell victory
On Friday, the Washington Post published a story headlined "Trump's assault on the U.S. Postal Service gives Democrats a new campaign message." Put aside the casual use of the word "assault." The fact is, Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and other top Democrats are jumping on the Postal Service controversy with both feet. "Democrats are already blanketing the airwaves, latching on to the opportunity to highlight support [for the Postal Service]," the paper reported. Obama has joined in, tweeting that seniors and veterans and small businesses "can't be collateral damage for an administration more concerned with suppressing the vote than suppressing a virus."
The Democratic commentariat cheered and signaled it is ready to press the issue until election day. "Trump donor & Postmaster General Louis DeJoy should be in the crosshairs of every relevant congressional committee, inspector general, prosecutor, investigative journalist, whistleblower, class action lawyer, editorial board, etc. etc. etc.," tweeted former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. No doubt that is precisely what will happen in the Democratic world and some major media outlets between now and Nov. 3. But shouldn't someone, sometime take a look at what is actually happening?