The Postal Service and the Election: Q&A with a Former Postal Regulator

(Photo: U.S. Mission Geneva / Flickr; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

Ruth Goldway served on the Postal Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that oversees the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), for a total of 18 years. First appointed by President Bill Clinton, and reappointed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, she also chaired the commission from 2009 through 2014.

During her time on the commission, which works to bring accountability to USPS’s postal rates and service performance, Goldway successfully advocated for the creation of the “Forever” stamp that would retain its validity even when first-class rates went up. In 2012, she won an award for championing underserved consumers. The award cited her “attention to the disparate impacts of postal policy on first-class stamp buyers and low-income, elderly and rural postal clients.”

Goldway has long promoted voting by mail, testifying before Congress in 2007 on how it can be good for democracy.

Goldway has long promoted voting by mail, testifying before Congress in 2007 on how it can be good for democracy, helpful for those overloaded with work and family scheduling challenges, and can be a more secure alternative to electronic voting machines. This year, voting by mail confers another significant advantage: With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is less risky than in-person voting, which entails waiting in line with others indoors.

Yet President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed hostility toward mail-in voting, despite using it himself, and has made numerous unsupported claims regarding the fraud risks posed by voting by mail and that it benefits Democrats (three detailed analyses of mail-in voting have found it has not benefitted either party). Recently, there has been a flood of news reports of deteriorating postal service. Perhaps most notably, changes put into place or accelerated under current Postmaster General Louis DeJoy—a major Trump donor and former Republican National Committee finance chair—appear to have slowed service and may affect the delivery of mailed-in ballots and other election-related services.

Amid a public outcry, DeJoy announced on Tuesday he was putting some of those changes on hold until after the election. It is not clear if he is delaying all changes, such as treating mail-in ballots as third-class, or bulk, mail that takes three to 10 days to deliver, rather than as first-class mail, which takes two to five days to deliver.

For an expert view, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) turned to Goldway.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

What are the most important things to know and that should happen now regarding the Postal Service and the upcoming election?

The most important message that needs to get out now is that the Postal Service has plenty of capacity in its existing network—more than enough to handle even the largest projections of vote-by-mail. It also has more than enough cash on hand to cover its operating expenses through most of 2021 even if it doesn’t get additional funding.

The USPS needs to change the way it has been processing election mail immediately and raise its level of service for that mail to first-class service standards. The concerns, complaints, congressional inquiries should all focus on that now.

We need to rebuild confidence in the Postal Service. Voting by mail is far less prone to fraud than electronic voting machines and leaves a distinct paper trail. It has worked extremely well in previous election seasons. And the Postal Service has an excellent track record of protecting the sanctity of the mail. It has its own department of postal inspectors, who are law enforcement officers who regularly patrol Postal Service operational facilities, post offices, and the activities of letter carriers.

Can you give us some background on the Postal Service’s funding situation and service cuts?

The USPS has been cutting its service standards—the length of time it takes to deliver mail—for many years. It has gotten approval from the Postal Regulatory Commission to do so because it always says such cuts—reducing the number of sorting facilities, cutting labor costs—will help it to solve its financial problems. All the large mailers who use the Postal Service agreed to the cuts because they never want to pay higher rates.

The cost-cutting plans that the new postmaster general implemented in July were not new. Most had been drawn up by former USPS managers. However, these cuts have not brought the savings that were promised in previous years and their implementation was slowed by the outgoing postmaster general.

How can we tell what’s motivating some of the recent changes and if politics or some other improper motivation is at least partially behind them?

It is hard to determine what led the new postmaster general to implement cuts including removing sorting machines, taking out mailboxes, and reducing overtime that hurt delivery standards even more. It may well have been that he was new to the job, wanted to show his strong leadership and, because he wasn’t familiar with the Postal Service, pulled plans off the shelf and told his managers to implement all of them as quickly as possible.

It may have been that he didn’t realize how much the reduction in staffing due to COVID was already thinning his army of postal workers and thought that these cuts could be easily implemented without damage to the system.

Or he may have done it because his mentor President Trump has been complaining about the Postal Service’s inefficiencies and his [the president’s] underlings like Treasury Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin had advocated such cuts in a previous report.

I don’t think his action was directly coordinated with Trump’s threat to close the Postal Service by not giving it funds. Trump’s specious argument is meant to scare voters and show his own power. In fact, the Postal Service cannot be shut down by the president. It is an entirely independent enterprise and, as mentioned earlier, has adequate operating funds through at least August 2021.

But the combination of the postmaster general’s cuts with the president’s posturing created a wave of concern that could undermine vote by mail as much as the lower service standards the Postal Service wanted to use.

What do you hope congressional oversight and the USPS’s office of inspector general accomplish?

I hope the actions taken by the Senate and the House in the next few days to review the situation and demand first-class service for all election mail regardless of the postage it is paying will solve the immediate problem. I hope the office of inspector general’s recently announced review points out the specific problems of the postmaster general’s cost-cutting plans and offers better alternatives.

What are some of the root causes behind the Postal Service’s current situation?

The Postal Service does have long-term structural problems. It receives no federal monies. It relies entirely on the revenue it receives from postage and a few other services. Its budget is separate from the federal budget. By law, it is required to break even, but is allowed to make a profit that it can use to subsidize unprofitable operations. It is required to provide letter mail service to all Americans at the same price, regardless of where they live, in exchange for being granted a monopoly on that service.

It is allowed to make a profit on services like package delivery. But, over the last decade, letter mail has shrunk by over 30% and that was the most profitable product offered. Revenues declined accordingly, so the Postal Service began to expand its package services. Those have grown and have almost replaced the revenue lost by letter mail. But it costs a lot more to handle packages, so, while the revenue is OK, the profits are down, and the losses are up.

In addition, in a revision to the postal law enacted in fiscal year 2007 [the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act], the Postal Service was required to prepay all of the future healthcare benefits its future retirees would engender. Five billion dollars a year for 10 years. No other agency has to do this and hardly any business does this. The provision was put into an otherwise helpful reform bill by the Bush administration in order to help the federal deficit look smaller and to make it more possible for the Postal Service to be privatized in the future.

Beginning in 2009, with the Great Recession, the Postal Service began to suffer such great losses from less letter mail and this annual payment that it was unable to make the structural reforms needed to adjust to a digital world, upgrade its physical infrastructure, and invest in new products or services to balance its offerings. The financial hole it is in has grown bigger and bigger as neither the president nor the Congress wanted to take action in the last decade. That is, until now.

Why should people care about the Postal Service?

Too many people just see the Postal Service as a business that delivers advertising. Yet it is more than that. It has had a major role in the development of our democracy since its inception, even prior to the adoption of our Constitution. And the Postal Service itself is embodied in the Constitution.

It disseminated inexpensive, uncensored political information in the early years of the Republic. It initiated home delivery during the Civil War to let families know about their loved ones who were off fighting. It subsidized our nascent airline services by being the first to use planes to carry mail. It helped rural communities thrive by shipping their agricultural products and delivering goods from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. It has had an important role in developing our economy from its savings banks in World War II, facilitated use of credit cards, and, more recently, it helped nurture Netflix by efficiently sending out all those DVDs in red envelopes. It distributed Social Security checks safely before we had electronic banking. It now is the main way in which our veterans get their medicines. And all along it has supported elections in one way or another.

Now, with the pandemic, its role in our democracy in facilitating our elections is more critical than ever. The public has to speak out, to save the Postal Service by raising the service level for election mail in this election season and by demanding that the Congress enact legislation that gives the Postal Service large infusions of capital and the capability to offer a wider range of services.