The U.S. Postal Service’s massive COVID test mobilization speaks to a polarizing truth
A day early or, if you prefer, a couple of long pandemic years too late, the federal government’s offer to mail free, rapid coronavirus tests to every American went online last week. So did the latest test of a surprisingly controversial proposition: that it might behoove an ostensibly great nation to maintain a functioning postal system.
President Joe Biden thereby launched headlong into an undertaking that his own press secretary explicitly dismissed as preposterous a little more than a month ago. Not that it’s difficult to understand why any political communications professional would instinctively distance her boss from an endeavor with the magical and ominous quality of the proverbial chicken in every pot: magical if it more or less works; ominous if, like the poultry fatefully promised by Herbert Hoover’s supporters, it congeals into a government promise dashed by the anti-government ideology undermining crucial public services.
Illustrating the scope and stakes of the mobilization, COVIDtests.gov — the soothingly simple website rolled out by an administration with plenty of difficult memories of Healthcare.gov — reportedly reached a million simultaneous visitors the day it debuted, many times the next-most-trafficked government site, the U.S. Postal Service’s package tracker. As it happens, COVIDtests.gov also points visitors straight to the Postal Service, putting the benighted agency at the center of a pivotal trial of federal functionality.
It’s nevertheless frightening and fitting to find the Postal Service, and particularly DeJoy’s Postal Service, responsible for the towering logistical endeavor. At the one-year mark of his presidency, Biden is under extraordinary pressure to demonstrate the competence he advertised, and the bizarre conventions of American politics and media dictate that his competence be judged against some Platonic standard rather than the crashing incompetence of his immediate predecessor.
DeJoy is a prominent Republican donor, a former executive of and current investor in a private shipping company that contracts with the Postal Service, and, according to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, “the worst postmaster general in the modern history of America.” He is the apotheosis of decades of unsuccessful postal policy springing from the right’s foundational and fundamentally ridiculous idea that the government, which is by definition not a business, should be more businesslike.
Dating to the Second Continental Congress, which named none less than Benjamin Franklin the first postmaster general in 1775, the United States Postal Service’s lineage is older than the United States. Designed to unite a vast, varied and substantially rural nation, it remains the most important federal presence for much of the country and the quintessence of a core government function.
As Congress’ General Accountability Office noted in 2020, the Postal Service “has the mission of providing prompt, reliable, and efficient universal postal service, and federal law requires USPS to ‘provide postal services to bind the nation together through the personal, educational, literary and business correspondence of the people.’ USPS is required to serve, as nearly as practicable, the entire population of the United States.”
So it’s strange but not coincidental that it has also become a favorite target of conservative anti-government experimentation. That has set up the Postal Service to fail, perpetually fulfilling the otherwise false prophecy that undermined it in the first place.
The agency was a Cabinet-level department, putting the postmaster general in the line of presidential succession, from Reconstruction until 1970. That was the year Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act, which transmogrified it into a unique government-owned corporation, meant to be self-sustaining and run by a presidentially appointed Board of Governors. The latter arrangement ensures that DeJoy, Donald Trump’s choice for postmaster, is still running the service a year into Biden’s term.
In 2006, as email and other technologies sapped the public will to stand in line for stamps, George W. Bush signed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which was supposed to give the agency more flexibility to sustain itself by setting prices. But the law also heaped on new obligations, including that it fund retiree health care costs for the next 75 years.
How did that work out? As the GAO put it succinctly, “USPS is to function as a financially self-sustaining entity; however, it does not.”
That could be because “federal laws define the level of postal services ... postal products and pricing. ... Thus, there may be a tension between attempting to fulfill public service missions while operating in an efficient, business-like and financially self-sustaining manner.”
Enter DeJoy, who set about solving this largely invented problem with a plan to reduce post office hours, remove mailboxes and cut carrier overtime regardless of the repercussions for mail delivery. Even in the best of times, these measures might have been unpopular with a public that is overwhelmingly well-disposed toward the Postal Service. They were more so given that they debuted in the teeth of a mismanaged pandemic that forced Americans to rely more heavily on the Postal Service for goods, services and even elections. At the same time, DeJoy’s sponsor, then-President Trump, was carrying out a calculated rhetorical blitzkrieg against the trustworthiness of voting by mail as if Americans hadn’t been doing so since the Civil War.
DeJoy backed off amid the outcry, and the agency’s inspector general subsequently found that its handling of election mail had gone surprisingly well. But the postmaster came slashing back last year with a 10-year austerity plan that has already had many of the feared repercussions for services, particularly in the rural areas that rely on them most.
To be fair, the Postal Service is operating like a business in one notable way, according to the Center for Public Integrity: by cheating its rank-and-file employees and overpaying its executives — among them DeJoy, who made about as much as Biden last year while enjoying such perks as airline club memberships and retirement counseling.
Unfortunately, DeJoy wasn’t ushered into that retirement before his agency was charged with the nationwide implementation of an overdue public health precaution. As Sanders put it, “given the deterioration of the Postal Service under Mr. DeJoy, how can anyone have confidence that these lifesaving tests will be delivered to the American people in a timely and efficient manner? I think the obvious answer to that question is they cannot.”
DeJoy is still the postmaster general, but he is no Ben Franklin. His leadership, and the misbegotten legislative structure enabling it, inspire little confidence in the U.S. Postal Service’s capacity to serve as the venerable and crucial public institution it is.