In a year that shattered suspicions, even the trusted US Postal Service found itself at the center of a political scandal. Months after the pandemic slapped the already beleaguered authority in the face, its workers became farmers in a partisan attempt to quell the postal vote. Louis DeJoy, the hand-picked postmaster general of the Trump administration, busied himself digging his fingers into the day-to-day operations of the USPS, causing dramatic disruption to pre-election mail delivery.
Thanks to an unprecedented public print campaign, DeJoy was forced to suspend these changes and tens of millions of people voted through the mail without incident (or fraud). As a result of these votes, Donald Trump will soon be stepping down from office. The postal service itself, however, remains in urgent need of reform. The agency’s long-standing structural problems are more evident than ever, and DeJoy is poised to advance his draconian efforts to bring down delivery costs. It will be an uphill battle for President-elect Joe Biden to restore the USPS to its former glory – but as last year has shown, the survival of our democracy literally depends on it.
Biden’s first obstacle will be the agency’s governance structure. DeJoy does not have a set term and only the Board of Governors has authority to replace him. All six of its current members were nominated by Trump, which allowed the board to weather DeJoy’s nomination last spring. Biden has pledged to appoint Democrats to fill the remaining vacancies, but he will need additional appointments to the nine-member board before his party has a controlling majority. That could last until 2022, and until then he won’t have the opportunity to oust DeJoy.
The road to postal reform from the Biden era could therefore lead through Capitol Hill. The Constitution gives Congress broad power to regulate the postal service, but lawmakers have all but abolished that power over the past decade. At the start of the pandemic, they limited postal assistance in the first CARES bill to a $ 10 billion Treasury loan and refused to provide the direct cash inflow needed by USPS leaders. However, the second coronavirus aid package is making that loan, which shows that now that Trump is fading from sight, lawmakers may have more appetite for direct aid.
Once the Covid-19 pandemic is over, Biden must urge Congress to take immediate action to help the postal service get back on its feet. The first and foremost task is to repeal the pre-financing mandate, a 2006 law that required the USPS to pre-fund health care services for retirees for up to five decades. A one-line change to revoke that mandate, which has proven disastrous for the agency’s finances, would free billions of dollars overnight.
Other bills could allow the postal service to generate revenue through activities such as offering low-interest bank accounts to the general public. Accounts that would provide security for poor families who otherwise would not have access to credit or financial services should be a priority for Progressives.
But even if Nancy Pelosi has the speaker’s gavel in the house, Biden will need Senate Republican support if he is to pass any of these measures. Fortunately, there are signs that the few remaining moderates in the GOP, like Senators Susan Collins and Steve Daines, are keen to take action on postal reform. However, given the nature of the Senate deadlock, it will be more than a little while before Biden is nudged.
Therefore, he should orient himself towards Trump and use the presidency as a bullying pulpit for the postal service. When Trump refused to vote by mail, he threatened to veto any aid package that contained money for the USPS, and Biden may take the same tough stance to the contrary. The president-elect can fulfill the values he campaigned for as a candidate with reforms that strengthen critical electoral infrastructure and provide vital protections to thousands of postal workers. Biden may not have direct authority to direct postal operations, but his position in the agency will help steer policy for the next four years.
The spotlight thrown on the USPS by a pandemic election provides the perfect opportunity to repair an institution that millions of Americans rely on every day. It’s up to Biden to make sure this opportunity is not missed.