Pascrell Essay In Washington
Monthly: Congress Is Sabotaging
Your Post Office
WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09) penned an essay outlining how the United States Postal Service has been crippled by misguided demands for it to operate like a business and argues that today’s Postal Service could further fulfill its original mission by expanding into services like community banking.
The full article can be viewed here, with a preview appearing below:
The Larry Doby Post Office is located at 194 Ward Street in Paterson, New Jersey, across the street from my congressional office. Dedicated on August 28, 1933, by the legendary Postmaster General James Farley, the structure was one of the many built by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in the throes of the Great Depression. While it may not have one of the stunning murals created by Roosevelt’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, I still marvel at the managed grandeur of its deco buttressing, the green glow of the elevated banker’s lamps off the marble walls, and the banks of brass P.O. boxes. My hometown has bounced like a cork in seas of social tumult, but the Ward Street post office has endured as I’ve always known it.
There is a cynical trope that Congress spends too much time naming post offices, but I don’t view the matter as insignificant. Post offices are open gates to American history and markers of an optimistic past. Even as smartphones and electronic communication permeate every crevice of daily life, the United States Postal Service (USPS) forms a lifeblood circulatory system connecting every community in the Union. For this reason, my work to rename the Ward Street building for Doby, an African American baseball legend and favorite son of Paterson, remains a highlight of my career.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Congress and the post office, the problem isn’t too much affection. For decades, Congress’s attitude toward the post has ranged from neglect to hostility. As a result, the USPS is struggling. In November 2018, it announced a net decline of $3.9 billion, continuing a twelve-year negative run.
The agency has been subjected to withering criticism by a spate of congressional hearings and Government Accountability Office analyses. A recent task force created by President Trump labeled the Postal Service’s financial path “unsustainable,” and recommended changes that would push the post closer to complete privatization. Under mounting political pressure, the post office itself has endorsed draconian layoffs and proposed ending Saturday delivery, among other savage cuts.
What is causing all these troubles? Is the Postal Service hopelessly outdated and dysfunctional? No. While it’s tempting to think of it as a mastodon from the pre-internet era, the post remains one of the most impressive enterprises on earth.
The USPS handles 47 percent of the world’s mail, delivering nearly 150 billion mail pieces annually. It delivers more in sixteen days than UPS and FedEx, combined, ship in a year. The agency has roughly half a million career employees spread out across almost 31,000 locations. Post offices are tucked into every state, across far-flung Native American reservations, and in remote protectorates. If it were a private business, the post would rank around fortieth on the Fortune 500. And you can send a letter from coast to coast for two quarters and a nickel—less than the cost of a candy bar.
Not surprising, then, that Americans consistently rank the post office among the most popular arms of government. A February 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that 88 percent of Americans have a positive view of it. That’s higher than the approval ratings for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Reserve, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
It’s true that technological change has affected the Postal Service’s fortunes. As people send fewer and fewer letters, the volume of first-class mail continues to tumble; between 2016 and 2018, it dropped by more than 4.5 billion pieces. This depresses the post’s revenue, forcing it to take on more debt, which in turn puts it under greater financial pressure. But as online shopping slowly replaces in-person retail, the post is sending and delivering more packages than ever before, which compensates somewhat for lost revenue. Lower mail volume is not the main issue.
In reality, most of the post’s wounds are politically inflicted. In the early 1970s, Congress passed legislation that shoehorned the agency into a convoluted half-public, half-corporate governing structure to make it operate more as a business. And in 2006, Congress required that the Postal Service pre-fund its health benefit obligations at least fifty years into the future. This rule has accounted for nearly 90 percent of the post’s red ink since.
For the most part, these harmful “reforms” have originated on the political right. To argue that the Postal Service needs to be privatized, conservatives need to show that it is dysfunctional, and there’s no better way to do that than by weighing the agency down with impossible financial obligations. It continues a generation-long pattern of institutional vandalism by Republicans across government. But ultimately, both parties bear responsibility. I should know: I was in Congress when we passed the 2006 bill. And, along with all my colleagues, I made the mistake of voting for it.
But the good news is that just as Congress put the Postal Service on its current dangerous trajectory, so can Congress put it on a sustainable path, bringing our cherished institution back to full health. In fact, I believe we can go even further. With its massive infrastructure network, post offices could revolutionize how the American people perform a variety of essential tasks, from voting to paying taxes to banking. Tapping into this network has the potential to revitalize both the Postal Service and our democracy. Instead of discussing how to cut the post office, we should be talking about how to expand it.
Read the full piece published in Washington Monthly here.
Office of U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr.
April 4, 2019