The US Postal Service Is a First-Order Problem for American Democracy

When the 117th US Congress convenes in January, its first order of business just might be to quietly undertake to fix the nation’s system of voting by reforming the US Postal Service.

Critics routinely blame the USPS for losing money.  “It’s a Blockbuster service in a Netflix world,” asserted a writer for the Editorial Desk of The Wall Street Journal the other day. What the editorialist failed to understand is that the USPS is isn’t a business, it is a civic institution.

The Postal Service is older than the Navy, the Marines, or the Declaration of Independence, as historian Joseph Adelman has pointed out. Its creation, along with a system of post roads, was practically the first thing the Second Continental Congress took up, after the Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord, in 1775.

They did it for a reason, Adelman writes in Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News 1763-1789 (Johns Hopkins, 2019).  Efficient and impartial communication of printed matter was essential to keep thirteen diverse and far-flung colonies in touch with current news and opinion. The first Post Office Act, in 1792, set off steady expansion of the newspaper industry, and for the next two centuries printed matter accompanied first-class mail at bargain rates to every corner of the country.

True, a great deal has happened in the last fifty years.  Print newspapers seem to be on the ropes in a digital age. The rapid distribution of e-commerce merchandise has been largely taken over by United Parcel Service, Federal Express, and, recently, Amazon. USPS has found a secure place among these new-comers in the package-delivery business thanks to peak-load pricing.

But now the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that, thanks to voting by mail, old-fashioned first-class mail is a service that the US cannot do without.  Thus putting the USPS on a long-term sustainable basis is a first-order problem of democracy.

How might it be done?  The election is 78 days away.  The composition of Congress won’t be completely clear for some time after that.  But a look back at the little-remebered last time the sinews of American democracy were seriously threatened, in 1983, might be instructive. Still Artful Work: The Continuing Politics of Social Security Reform (McGraw Hill, 1994) provides some clues as to how such compromises are achieved.

Towards the beginning, Paul Light, now a political scientist at New York University, who followed the negotiations as a young Congressional Fellow, provided a capsule glimpse of the feel-your-way by which such things happen.

  1. Reagan proposal to solve the social security crisis through deep budget cuts in May 1981
  2. Passage of a scarcely noticed bill in December 1981 that would trigger a social security emergency in mid-1983
  3. An attempt to tackle social security through the budget in April 1982
  4. A break for the midterm Congressional elections
  5. The birth and death of the National Commission on Social Security Reform in 1982
  6. The rise of a secret negotiating “gang” as a shield for talks between Reagan and [House Speaker Tip] O’Neill in January 1983
  7. Navigation of the social security agreement through the interest-group infested waters on Capitol Hill in March 1983
  8. The final House-Senate conference just before the Easter recess in 1983

Congressman Barber Conable (R-NY) was an architect of the ultimate deal. He told Light that the final compromise “was not a work of art, but it was artful work,” providing the title for the book.  The analogy is not precise: postal service customers are not involved financially the same way as are social security recipients. But both selves are inv0lved emotionally, and both vote.  Meanwhile, that earlier reform is itself none-too-gradually running out of time. Soon another social security fix will be required.

Here’s to the opportunities that lie ahead!

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