What ails the mail are unintended consequences.
GST Board member Jim Adams comments on the Post Office in the 8/27/20 New Hampshire Union Leader.
The present financial woes of the U.S. Postal Service are the result of unintended consequences of past decisions not recent developments.
Prior to 1972, the former Post Office Department was the largest patronage job employer in the country — jobs and promotions received through knowing the right people rather than based on merit. Back then, every 4 years about 30,000 postmaster positions and another approximately 60,000 rural delivery carriers nationwide were changed to the supporters and activists of an incoming administration.
Needless to say that made it a herculean task to move the mail.
In the early 1970s as the result of a strike, then-President Richard Nixon and Congress removed the postmaster general from the president’s cabinet and created the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The USPS then became a merit-based employer to take politics out of the USPS, but many former postmasters general in the decades since would dispute that outcome.
Today, the President and Congress have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the USPS.
USPS has a seven-member board of governors (BOG) appointed by the president, approved by the U.S. Senate. The BOG appoints a postmaster general and functions in the same manner as a private sector board of directors.
Congress does have oversight, but it is limited in scope.
USPS gets 99% of its revenue from stamp sales and other products and services. In fact, almost since its inception, the USPS has poured billions into the U.S. Treasury rather than being subsidized by government.
The present financial state of the USPS is the result of unintended consequences.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) created a model and methodology by which the USPS paid its retirees. But in he early 2000 timeframe, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded the USPS had overpaid to the tune of $120 billion into the retirement fund over three decades.
Congress barely blinked and stated that the USPS got most of the Post Office Department real estate in the 1970s and called it even. Then, just a few short months later, Congress declared that the USPS must also begin pre-paying its retirees’ health benefits as well, a bill of $54 billion over a 10-year period.
The $120 billion overpayment and the $54 billion in prepaid retiree health benefits are large contributors to the present fiscal mess. However, to that end, the USPS must also share some of the blame. Poor business decisions and, in some cases, poor leadership also contributed.
Fast forward to the present and now at issue is an expected tsunami of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 in the 2020 elections.
Financially strapped by the overpayments combined with years of mail volume erosion and a relaxation of USPS service standards some eight years ago and you have a perfect storm. The potential of millions of ballots coming through the USPS is finally setting off alarm bells and politicians are scrambling.
There is a chasm between handling the usual absentee ballot process and mailing millions of ballots to every registered voter in some states across the country.
The absentee ballot process has been in place for a very long time. The USPS and the town and city employees responsible for absentee ballots have done a great job over the years. Now enters the idea in some states of mailing ballots to everyone on the voter registry. Some states are even trying to do this on the cheap by mailing these ballots utilizing the bulk business mail classification. But bulk business mail has never gotten the same service as first-class mail. It’s not a good idea.
Further, the envelopes with ballots in them with the voters’ names on them should have the following endorsement in the left-hand corner of the envelope: Deliver to Addressee Only – Address Service Requested. These instructions to carriers would assure that only the intended recipient will get the ballot or it will be returned to the town or city office from where it came. Without that endorsement, anyone could get the ballot and problems could occur.
If the mailed ballots utilize 1st Class postage and Deliver to Addressee Only – Address Service Requested, I believe that the employees of the USPS would once again deliver the ballots on time, as they have for many years.
The BOG runs the USPS and directs the postmaster general to give the American public the best possible service at the lowest possible cost. With a pre-COVID deficit of nearly $80 billion — including costs out of the Postal Service’s control — every aspect of the USPS must be examined to improve service and reduce costs.
The bottom line is the USPS must change its structure and the way it does business or it will fail.
But all of those tough decisions and possible changes will occur long after November 4, 2020.
Jim Adams is a retired postal executive and served as the chief of staff for three postmasters general.
He is the current chair of the New Hampshire State Veterans Council and resides in Pittsfield.