A Brief History Of Political Interference In The U.S. Postal Service

Aug 16, 2020
Originally published on August 16, 2020 6:00 pm

The U.S. Postal Service is suddenly at the center of a political firestorm.

The government agency — which doesn't receive taxpayer funding — is hemorrhaging money. House Democrats included $25 billion for the Postal Service in a coronavirus relief package in May but are far from reaching agreement with Republicans.

And last week President Trump said he opposes that extra funding for the Postal Service because he wants to make it harder to expand voting by mail.

The Biden campaign called the comments sabotage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Trump of being willing to "manipulate the operations of the Post Office to deny eligible voters the ballot in pursuit of his own re-election."

This comes as the newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy faces bipartisan criticism over changes he says are to cut costs and improve efficiency. Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who chairs the House Government Operations subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, told NPR's All Things Considered that the changes DeJoy has implemented "can only have the effect of delaying the mail."

But political interference in the U.S. Postal Service isn't new, according to Winifred Gallagher, the author of How the Post Office Created America. She talked with NPR's Weekend Edition about how political debate about the USPS is almost as old as the institution itself.


Interview Highlights

On how the USPS became America's favorite government service

I would date it to 1792. That's when our post office became truly unique. George Washington, Benjamin Rush and James Madison decided to use the postal network to create an informed electorate. This was very radical. Europeans were horrified. These founders devised this kind of Robin Hood scheme that used the high cost of postage to send letters, to subsidize the cost of mailing cheap uncensored newspapers to every citizen so that they could understand public affairs before they cast their votes.

On when politicians started to use the USPS for their own ends

Actually, they didn't interfere with postal operations very much until Andrew Jackson became president. He created what is called the spoils system. So he also made the postmaster general a very powerful Cabinet officer and installed his political cronies in that position. And for nearly a century and a half, this spoils system allowed whichever party won the White House to reward its supporters with tens of thousands of jobs.

On how we got to this moment

I would date the current crisis to the 1980s, when a very timid USPS management and Congress fatefully decided not to shift from letter mail to email. They could have given Americans digital addresses the same way they gave us our physical street addresses. And in fact, of course, as everyone knows, by 2001, email had drastically reduced the volume of first class letter mail, and then that crisis was worsened further by the really disastrous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which restricted the Postal Service's ability to offer new services or adjust its pricing to its cost and, worse, required it to prefund its retiree health care benefits decades into the future, which created billions of dollars of debt. And that is what has prevented the post office from turning a profit for the past six years.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The U.S. Postal Service is hemorrhaging money, and the Trump administration has suggested it won't bail it out. Speaking yesterday, President Trump blamed Democrats for the Postal Service's financial problems, saying they aren't approving funding for mail-in voting. The Biden campaign is calling the administration's moves sabotage, saying it is an attempt to gut an institution that is an essential part of American life and to thwart the demand for mail-in ballots before an election. But political interference in the U.S. Postal Service isn't new, says our next guest. Winifred Gallagher is the author of "How The Post Office Created America," and she joins us now.

Welcome.

WINIFRED GALLAGHER: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So before we get to what is happening now, I want to start with history. The roots of the post office actually go back to when the U.S. was 13 colonies.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, even before the Declaration of Independence. The post office has really been woven into America's DNA since Benjamin Franklin. He was our first postmaster general and our founding father. In the 1760s and '70s, the American patriots created these underground postal networks that enabled them to conspire, talk treason under the British radar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've called the Postal Service our democracy's unifier and equalizer. How did it become America's favorite government service?

GALLAGHER: I would date it to 1792. That's when our post office became truly unique. George Washington, Benjamin Rush and James Madison decided to use the postal network to create an informed electorate. This was, like, very radical. The Europeans were horrified. These founders devised this kind of Robin Hood scheme that used the high cost of postage to send letters to subsidize the cost of mailing cheap, uncensored newspapers to every citizen so that they could understand public affairs before they cast their votes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But after that, politicians used the post office for their own ends. How so?

GALLAGHER: Actually, they didn't interfere with postal operations very much until Andrew Jackson became president. He created what is called the spoils system. So he made the postmaster general a very powerful Cabinet officers and installed his political cronies in that position. And for nearly a century and a half, this spoils system allowed whichever party won the White House to reward its supporters with tens of thousands of jobs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there is a lot of concern over the financial trouble the post office is in. But this, you know, predates this administration. Briefly walk us through how we got to this moment.

GALLAGHER: Yeah. I would date it to the - the current crisis to the 1980s, when a very timid USPS management and Congress fatefully decided not to shift from letter mail to email. They could've given Americans digital addresses the same way they gave us our physical street addresses. And in fact, of course, as everyone knows, by 2001, email had drastically reduced the volume of first-class letter mail.

And then that crisis was worsened further by the really disastrous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which restricted the Postal Service's ability to offer new services or adjust its pricing to its cost, and worse, required it to prefund its retiree health care benefits decades into the future, which created billions of dollars of debt. And that is what has prevented the post office from turning a profit for the past six years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's talk about what the Trump administration has now done. Louis DeJoy has been appointed as the postmaster general. He is a North Carolina businessman and a major Trump donor who reportedly has financial interests and competitors to the post office. And he stepped in, and he's cut the overtime of hundreds of thousands of employees. He said he would hold mail if it can't be sorted. This is purportedly to cut costs. Do you see it that way?

GALLAGHER: No, not at all. And it also, of course, reminds me of his favorite president - is Andrew Jackson. And that's the guy who invented the spoils system and made the postmaster general his political crony. Congress has to accept its responsibility and restore the USPS to health with these very commonsense reforms, including forgiving the huge debt for the retiree health care benefits, and also allow it to raise its prices very modestly. These are just things that the Congress has to do to, you know, preserve the system at this time of incredible partisanship and fragmentation. We have this one big, unifying national delivery system, and we need it to continue to support our democracy and free speech in ways that, you know, Benjamin Franklin couldn't even have imagined - delivering medicines and test kits during a COVID epidemic, but especially voting by mail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Winifred Gallagher is the author of "How The Post Office Created America: A History."

Thank you very much.

GALLAGHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.