Op - Ed, Opinion

Congress needs to act to protect USPS

By Layne Bruce

A move by the USPS to slow down mail service by cutting overtime and reducing sortation sure seems like a gambit by the Trump administration to impact voting by mail this fall.

He practically said as much Aug. 13 on Fox Business.

Democrats have proposed over $3.6 billion for voting by mail at a time when casting ballots in person is a perilous chore for many. And they’ve asked for $25 billion to finally shore up the postal service’s perpetually precarious finances.

But President Trump told Fox’s Maria Bartiromo that increased mail-in voting will lead to widespread voter fraud (even though it’s apparently fine in Florida where he voted in the primary just this year).

“Those are just two items. But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it,” he told Fox Business.

This could easily be one of the president’s most self-defeating ploys. And, Lord knows, that’s a high bar.

First, there is no evidence mail-in voting (or absentee voting — whatever you want to call it, it’s the same thing) is riddled with fraud or inherently benefits one party over another. In fact, some conventional wisdom would have you believe less voting by mail could hurt Republican candidates more since a high proportion of those ballots are cast by older Americans — usually more reliably supportive of the GOP.

Second, slowing down the mail further cripples an already seriously atrophied economy. A lot of merchandise and money still moves the old-fashioned way by snail mail. Slower service means everything from paper checks to mail-order prescriptions are going to take longer to get where they’re going.

Anecdotally, we can see this happening daily. In our office, not surprisingly, we receive mail copies of all newspapers in the state. Papers have been showing up just recently from late June and early July. And a valuable payment to a contract laborer took 13 days to make its way to Virginia by First Class this month.

Again, conventional wisdom — if there even is such a thing anymore — would dictate the slower the money comes, the angrier businesses and Americans in general are going to get with the powers that be.

There is no denying the financial straits of the post office. Historically one of America’s best-run bureaucracies — yes, the post office is actually very popular — USPS was saddled with billions of dollars in liabilities when Congress ruled 15 years ago the agency should pre-fund its retirement pension benefits. That meant paying up front for the nearly 5 million career employees in its ranks.

Ever the can-kickers, Congress has for years ignored real fixes and chosen to selectively act whenever the post office was on the brink of shutdown. Turns out it takes a helluva lot of 50-cent stamps sold to cover the agency’s budget, even with all of the income from far more lucrative package delivery clients who now use it.

Lawmakers passed up the best chance yet to correct the problem earlier this year when they indiscriminately spewed trillions in stimulus benefits practically out of fire hoses at most Americans and businesses in an effort to put out the economic inferno ignited by the Covid-19 pandemic.

All of this is of particular concern to local newspapers and other publications that work diligently to get their still very-analog products to the docks of local post offices every day. In fact, this industry has become more reliant on USPS in the last decade than it ever had been in the past.

Whereas in “olden times” it was common for weekly newspapers to be delivered to subscribers in the mail, it was customary for daily newspapers to use contractors for direct delivery — paperboys, if you will. But as shrinking margins have put a terrible squeeze on the business of local journalism, newspapers began turning to USPS in large numbers for the delivery of their printed products.

In fact, in Mississippi, where pre-pandemic “daily newspapers” numbered about 17, most were carrier-delivered. But in recent years that number has dropped to just a handful as many others turned to USPS for delivery solutions.

Now comes the word the post office, led by a Trump administration crony with no prior experience in the agency, is slowing down service by cutting overtime and reducing daily sorting in some locations, putting carriers on the street faster at the expense of unsorted mail piling up back at the office.

All of this is another potential powder keg in a year replete with them. Slowing the mail is going to lead to consumer frustration and further rusting of economic gears at a time when mail-based commerce is soaring because of coronavirus concerns.

Congress could and should act now to resolve the USPS crisis and, as much of a pipe dream as it may be, tell the president to leave politics and related unsubtle, very undemocratic shenanigans out of it.

Layne Bruce is the executive director of the Mississippi Press Association.

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