Imagine a postal worker who stopped making their daily rounds for a few weeks because they just didn’t feel like it. Thousands of pieces of mail would fall behind, including people’s paychecks and medicine, and the Postal Service would have a messy situation on its hands. Surely, that worker would get fired, and the agency would apologize to everyone who was affected.
That is, unless that person is Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — the leader installed by Trump administration appointees who is perhaps the most incompetent and unqualified postal worker of all, and who, as of now, is the most immune to job termination.
That’s unfortunate for the Postal Service, and the millions of people who rely on it, because the postmaster general is not only inept; he’s also actively pushing the agency deeper and deeper into crisis. When he assumed office last June, DeJoy championed Donald Trump’s mission to sabotage the Postal Service prior to the election, which was largely going to rely on mail-in voting as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And though their efforts — which a federal judge deemed a “politically motivated attack” against the US Postal Service — ultimately failed to sway the election results, they still managed to wreak havoc on mail delivery. By late December, only 38 percent of nonlocal first-class mail was delivered on time, a staggering drop from 92 percent during the same period in the previous year.
That’s why, when it comes to reforming the Postal Service, President Biden and Congress must act boldly and swiftly to ensure that DeJoy’s reign is short-lived. If the president had the power to fire the postmaster general, that would make the matter simple. However, the postmaster general can be dismissed only by the agency’s board of governors, the current members of which were all appointed by Trump. Some Democrats, like Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey and Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, have called on Biden to fire the board members in order to nominate new members who could end DeJoy’s tenure, but that measure is too extreme, legally precarious, and sets a dangerous precedent.
Instead, Biden should prioritize filling the three current vacancies on the agency’s board. By doing so, five of the board’s nine members — the majority needed to oust DeJoy — would be Democrats. (Though the current members were all Trump appointees, the law requires that no more than five members be of the same party.) That probably still wouldn’t be enough to fire DeJoy, though, because one of the Trump-appointed Democrats on the board whose term won’t expire for nearly another two years, Donald Lee Moak, has so far been supportive of the postmaster general. If Moak is still willing to back DeJoy, Biden will be stuck with the postmaster general until 2022.
That may well be too late; DeJoy is making plans to eliminate a tier of first-class mail, creating longer delivery windows, and significantly increase postage rates, making the public service, which should be accessible to everyone, costlier and less efficient to use.
With the president’s options limited, Congress has an essential role to play in saving the Postal Service. After all, the agency’s board was only established in 1970, and Congress changed the way the USPS is governed as recently as 2006. By expanding the size of the board, for example, Congress could give Biden the power to appoint enough new members to terminate DeJoy’s term.
The need for postal reform, however, goes far beyond sending the postmaster general packing. The 2006 law — the most recent overhaul of the USPS — mandated that the agency prefund the next 50 years of its workers’ health care and retirement benefits, adding tens of billions of dollars to its operational costs and dooming the agency to chronic debt. While supporters of the law say it was intended to ensure that retirees receive the benefits they earned, it ended up engineering a financial crisis for the agency. Even Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who spearheaded the legislation in 2006, acknowledged that the prefunding requirement was “too aggressive” for the USPS to maintain. Congress should scrap that requirement and allow the Postal Service to fund its benefits annually, just as other government agencies do.
That law also prohibited the Postal Service from providing any services that go beyond mail delivery, which greatly limits the agency’s revenue streams — a necessary lifeline for the Postal Service since Congress, in 1970, required that it no longer rely on taxpayer funds — and its potential. Congress should instead expand the number of services that the USPS provides, including basic banking services like check cashing and small-dollar loans. Given that a quarter of US households are either unbanked or underbanked, cheap financial services provided by the Postal Service would greatly benefit underserved lower-income communities. Many countries around the world, like France and South Korea, already do this, and even the United States used to provide postal banking up until 1966.
Democrats have already shown an appetite for postal reform, and such action would probably be popular. Since DeJoy took over, Americans have become more keenly aware that the federal agency that surveys show is the most popular is under attack, and polls also show that the public wants to bolster the USPS’s funding.
The Postal Service is a bedrock of American life and, increasingly, its democracy, and it’s incumbent on Democrats to prioritize rescuing it from crisis. Though DeJoy may stand in the way of their reforms, his days are effectively numbered. And if Congress acts quickly, that could be sooner rather than later.
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