A 21st century Postal Service needs to deepen the partnerships that already exist with the mass mailing community and major private sector logistics companies. It needs to make sure that rural America continues to get timely, affordable, universal service. It needs resources to recapitalize its aging infrastructure.
This was all avoidable. Mail slowdowns. Concerns about mail-in ballots for the 2020 presidential election. Interrupting August recess for an urgent vote. It just required some vision.
The Postal Service thrived into the 21st Century because, with enough volume, delivering letters is a highly profitable business. Once people started paying bills online and pinching pennies with evites, though, the Postal Service could no longer afford to maintain its nationwide delivery network and still deliver mail on time.
The increase in online shopping, particularly during the pandemic, has been a lifeline, but no amount of packages can make up for the volume loss of letter mail. I know – as the head of policy for Democrats on the Senate Committee that oversees the Postal Service, I saw the data; the math does not work.
Packages are far more expensive for the Postal Service to deliver than letter mail. They take up more room in delivery vehicles, require additional routes for letter carriers, and result in more workplace injuries from carrying heavy boxes to every door in the country.
As the Postal Service’s revenues increasingly come from package volume, it is also competing more directly with private sector companies like FedEx, UPS and Amazon, complicating the politics around the issue and raising questions about the real purpose and core mission of the Postal Service.
Many Americans, especially those in urban and suburban areas, view the Postal Service as an anachronistic relic of a 20th century communications world. All they see in their mailboxes now is junk mail and packages that the private sector could deliver.
Yet 97 percent of the land in the U.S. is rural, and delivery to most of those houses is fundamentally unprofitable for the private sector. UPS, FedEx and Amazon actually pay the Postal Service to deliver to those addresses.
Without the Postal Service, successful online retailers like Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker would face prohibitive cost increases that threaten their business models. These are the companies that will keep the Postal Service relevant into the future, but they have not played a meaningful role in shaping what that future looks like.
Most importantly, and the reason Speaker Pelosi is calling House members back to DC in August, without a reliable Postal Service, vote-by-mail will be impossible. UPS and FedEx are not set up to go to every door, receive, sort and distribute letter mail; it’s not how they built their businesses.
A small handful of Members of Congress have been working tirelessly to reform the U.S. Postal Service since the Great Recession and the iPhone upended its finances. The president has also laid out his vision.
None of these reform proposals, however, address the underlying problem: the Postal Service’s business model is no longer sustainable. It has to deliver less mail to more addresses every year, but is effectively prevented from raising revenues, cutting costs, or borrowing money to fund its operations and make capital improvements.
In the absence of meaningful, long-term reform, the president’s chosen Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy is taking matters into his own hands. Democrats may question his motives, but without reform, many of these actions were inevitable.
If it is truly serious about maintaining nationwide delivery and ensuring the safety and security of our election, Congress must return to first principles. It needs to ask what the word service in “Postal Service” means and what the American people need from their government that the private sector will not provide.
It should start by allowing the Postal Service’s regulator to define what universal service means in terms of affordability, frequency, and types of service while striking a balance with private sector parcel delivery services – including Amazon – between competition and cooperation.
A 21st century Postal Service needs to deepen the partnerships that already exist with the mass mailing community and major private sector logistics companies. It needs to make sure that rural America continues to get timely, affordable, universal service. Finally, it needs resources to recapitalize its aging infrastructure.
The world is replete with examples of modernized postal networks. Congress would do well to take a step back, look at the lessons learned from similar efforts around the world, and lead the Postal Service into the 21st century with a vision.