Congress is poised to vote on a bill that would give the US Postal Service perhaps $3 billion to purchase an all-electric fleet of vehicles. Those of us who are concerned about climate change and air quality might be thrilled at this prospect. The USPS has a huge fleet of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles — 230,000 trucks and vans that log more than a billion miles every year.
The switch would be a good thing, right? Maybe, but it comes at another cost: It will continue the recent trend of political intrusion into the Postal Service’s operational freedom. For 50 years the Postal Service has been an independent and self-funded agency. It has to achieve public-service goals — like universal service to 161 million addresses in the United States and US territories — but it has been given the freedom to decide what facilities, equipment, and, yes, modes of transportation are best to do the job.
This model has served the Postal Service and the nation well. The agency delivers more mail than any other national post in the world and does so at very affordable rates. Three-quarters of the American public generally rates the USPS highly, often as their favorite government agency. To be sure, the Postal Service has real problems at the moment, including excessive staff turnover and uneven on-time delivery performance. Its customer service too often is atrocious. But meddling from politicians on the left and the right will only make things worse.
Congress gave the Postal Service operational independence for a straightforward reason: Politics was ruining it. From 1789 to 1969, the Post Office Department was a typical federal bureaucracy, subject to lots of direction by legislators and presidents.
During the 19th century, members of Congress and presidents doled out postmaster jobs as patronage to political hacks. During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the post office rifled through the mail, looking for signs of political disloyalty to the administration’s war-making. Both Congress and presidents used the mail to curb public access to certain books. In 1959, mailed copies of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 bodice-ripper, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” were seized for promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts.”
Throughout those many decades, politicians directed where post offices would be sited, where and how quickly mail would be delivered, and who paid how much postage. Naturally, their interests were to please their constituents and the interest groups that supported them. This is how the post office ended up issuing a stamp celebrating the American poultry industry.
By the 1960s, the agency was a wreck. The accumulation of these various parochial demands had scrambled the post office’s operations. The need to go hat in hand each year to Congress for funds sowed operational uncertainty and frequently left the post office shortchanged. The agency ran deficits, and on-time delivery performance sagged.
Lyndon B. Johnson reluctantly agreed to create a presidential commission to study the situation, and it recommended turning the Post Office Department into a government corporation that had operational independence.
The commission had not invented a new administrative model. Congress previously had created dozens of government corporations, such as the Panama Canal Railroad (formed in 1903) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (1933). Conceptually, this administrative model lets the government efficiently provide products and services of significant public value that private companies could not deliver reliably and affordably.
Congress largely agreed and in 1970 enacted sweeping changes to put mail operations at a remove from elected officials. The Postal Reorganization Act deemed the agency the US Postal Service, an “independent establishment of the executive branch.” No longer would the postmaster general be nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Instead, a bipartisan board of governors would select the postmaster general. Congress would no longer set postage prices, decide how many facilities the agency needed, or use annual spending bills to hand postal leadership a to-do list.
But then a couple of years ago politics made inroads into the USPS’s operations. President Donald Trump instigated the intrusion, first berating the Postal Service for charging too little postage for package deliveries and then accusing it of trying to help the Democrats steal the election.
Congressional Democrats responded by inaccurately claiming that COVID was going to crater the USPS’s revenues and therefore it should be given $25 billion in taxpayer funding. (The agency actually earned $2 billion more in 2020 than it had in the previous year.) After the funding was whittled down to a $10 billion loan in the CARES Act, the Trump administration refused to release the money unless the USPS handed over its confidential contracts with various shippers, including Amazon, whose then-CEO, Jeff Bezos, Trump despises.
But this was only the beginning — the political left then began a campaign accusing Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump fundraiser, of trying to cripple the post office’s capacity to deliver election mail by removing letter collection boxes and sorting machines. This narrative was grossly inaccurate, but that did not prevent Congressional Democrats from hauling DeJoy into hearings, berating him, and calling for the USPS Board of Governors to fire him, a drumbeat that continues.
Then came the lawsuits, filed by Democratic elected officials with the backing of liberal advocacy groups. Their basic argument was that the Postal Service had made operational decisions, such as proposing to reduce its sky-high spending on overtime, in order to slow mail delivery and disenfranchise millions of Americans who were voting by mail.
The federal judges presiding over these cases bought into those claims. One declared that it was “easy to conclude” that the USPS’s operational changes were designed to “disrupt and challenge” elections. But these judges overlooked the fact that the Postal Service’s lackluster delivery speeds stemmed from skyrocketing parcel volumes and a depletion of the workforce during COVID-19.
The jurists issued orders telling the USPS that it could not cut overtime, could not alter the schedules by which its trucks departed from facilities, and generally could not change its operations in any way that might slow the delivery of mail. With that, a trifecta had been achieved: All three branches of the government had intruded on the USPS’s operational authority.
Earlier this year the Postal Service awarded a contract to a company to replace its aged vehicle fleet. The decision came after years of taking bids and negotiations. The USPS leadership felt that the best choice was to acquire some electric vehicles and lots of gas-powered vehicles that can be retrofitted with electric engines once the agency has built sufficient charging stations and infrastructure.
The USPS has a whopping $22 billion in its bank account, $10 billion of which it got when Congress passed a law late last year that turned the CARES Act loan into a gift. The agency can afford an electric fleet, but it simply doesn’t see that as the best operational choice to implement immediately.
Democrats in Congress think otherwise and may get their way. If they do, it will be another blow to the USPS’s operational independence. And history shows where all this may lead — to a Postal Service that is in far worse shape than it is today.
Kevin R. Kosar, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is coauthor of a recent report on the Postal Service’s operational freedom. He is the co-editor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform.” Follow him on Twitter @kevinrkosar.