On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump took to Fox Business Network to say the quiet part out loud: He is holding up funding of the U.S. Postal Service because “that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
The idea that Trump might block emergency funding and hobble the U.S. Postal Service carried a special shock because of its impact on the election—but it’s only the latest shot that the venerable agency has taken from Trump during his presidency. Over the past two years, he has mocked the Postal Service as “a joke” and a “Delivery Boy” for Amazon. But lately there’s been real heat — blocking the USPS’s requests for billions in pandemic-related emergency funding, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, and installing as the new postmaster general a political loyalist who has reshuffled at least 23 senior postal officials over the last three months.
As a result, an agency as old as the U.S. government—which employs roughly 496,000 people, and which Americans count on for everything from utility bills to Amazon purchases—is suddenly, visibly struggling to do its job.
“Things are already going wrong,” says Philip F. Rubio, an expert on the U.S. Postal Service and professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University. There are “widespread mail slowdowns of all kinds of mail — first-class, marketing mail, parcels. Even the Veterans’ Administration has complained that veterans are not getting their medications on time.”
For the president to admit to deliberately trying to slow the mail process in order to curb mail-in voting is “stunning, because it is political sabotage,” says Rubio, himself a former letter carrier who spent two decades working for USPS. “He’s using his power of the veto [to hold up funding and] to interfere with the democratic process.”
Since May, when President Trump appointed Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman and major donor to Trump’s political campaign, as the new postmaster general, a cascade of major changes has hit the USPS.
In July, at DeJoy’s direction, USPS began to eliminate overtime pay for postal workers, ordering them to instead end their shifts at a set time rather than when all the mail is delivered — leading to delivery delays. In recent weeks, USPS officials told state election officials that if they want to ensure a speedy delivery of absentee ballots, they’ll need to pay for them to be sent at a first-class rate, which is roughly three times as expensive as bulk rate typically used to send ballots to voters. This week, without any public explanation, the USPS has begun removing mail-sorting machines from postal facilities throughout the country.
These sound like reversible decisions. They might not be. “Once you take something offline, it’s really expensive to bring it back. We don’t know if this will be permanent or not,” says Rubio, who uses the word “sabotage” to describe what both Trump and DeJoy are doing.
There is, says Rubio, a real political risk in all of this for President Trump and the Republicans who support his USPS defunding. In 1970, after President Nixon’s tough-love treatment of postal workers led to a wildcat strike among letter carriers, public opinion quickly swayed in against the president.
“I don’t think the Nixon administration counted on the amount of sympathy people had for postal workers,” says Rubio, who authored a book on the strike. “You could really see how much they identified with their letter carriers. A Gallup poll showed 61 percent approval for the postal workers who were striking and holding up their mail.”
All of this makes for a volatile election season: People stuck in their houses are increasingly reliant on the postal service to deliver purchases and medicine as they avoid in-person shopping, and increasingly aware of its problems. The president, meanwhile, appears to be betting that crippling the postal system will be more helpful to him on Election Day than it is politically harmful.
So, where do we go from here? The postal service is a vast and intricate network, with more than 240 years of history, and one of its few historians is Rubio, who carried mail himself for 20 years in North Carolina and Colorado, and is deeply familiar with both the USPS’s byzantine complexities and the use of the mail system as a political football. What are the risks in Trump’s game of brinksmanship with the agency? This week, POLITICO spoke to Rubio twice about all of this. A transcript of those conversations is below, combined and edited for length and clarity.
Stanton: Wednesday morning, President Trump appeared on Fox Business and said flatly that he isn’t going to adequately fund the U.S. Postal Service so that Americans “can’t have universal mail-in voting.” When you hear a president say that, what goes through your head, both as someone who has an expertise in the Postal Service and was a postal worker for two decades?
Rubio: Trump’s remarks were stunning in the frank admission that he will refuse emergency funds for the Postal Service — $25 billion in emergency bailout funds, as well as the proposed $3.5 billion to supplement funding election resources nationwide. This is already piled on top of his determination that the Postal Service should support itself in the midst of this pandemic.
To admit this out loud is stunning, because it is political sabotage: He’s using his power of the veto to interfere with the democratic process and keep mail-in balloting from being more successful. We need more, not less, help for the Postal Service to gear up for what’s expected to be a crush of mail-in ballots. And, of course, we already knew it was hypocritical, because he himself votes absentee, and there is essentially no difference between absentee and mail-in voting. Really, all this does is confirm what many of us were already thinking was his major motivation in holding up funds for the Postal Service as part of the stimulus package.
Stanton: In terms of the president basically deciding not to fund the USPS because he doesn’t like what citizens will be using the mail to do, is there any sort of analogous precedent anywhere in the history of the postal system?
Rubio: I haven’t seen any.
Stanton: If the Postal Service isn’t funded, it’s not just ballots that won’t be delivered. What possibly goes wrong when the Postal Service cannot deliver what it is expected to?
Rubio: I’m glad you asked that question, because things are already going wrong. And this shines a brighter spotlight on the actions of the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. The delays he’s implemented just in the last month have caused widespread mail slowdowns of all kinds of mail — first-class, marketing mail, parcels. Even the Veterans’ Administration has complained that veterans are not getting their medications on time.
This is a time when the Postal Service should really be fulfilling its mission of universal service rather than cutting a few costs here and there. What Postmaster General DeJoy appears to be doing is enabling Trump’s external sabotage, only DeJoy is internally sabotaging the Postal Service while denying that his policies of cutting overtime, of holding back first-class mail are anything more than what he referred to as sensationalized, isolated incidents. We’re getting those all across the country.
Other policies of DeJoy’s are suspicious — for instance, proposing to take as many as 671 mail-processing machines offline, out of service just before the November election, when we expect a crush of ballots. And once you take something offline, it’s really expensive to bring it back. We don’t know if this will be permanent or not.
In a pandemic, it’s making people feel even more anxious than they were before. Whereas they were feeling more reassured that the Postal Service would enable them to be able to cast their vote without having to go to a polling place, now you hear people saying, “I’m just going to have to vote in person.” And this won’t be just the Democrats as, I think, Trump is imagining. Republicans and independents, they want to feel secure, and the Postal Service should be there for that.
These kinds of policies are dangerous for disenfranchisement, such as asking boards of elections to pay first-class rates in sending ballots out instead of the 20-cent marketing mail rate. If the ballots don’t get to the voter in time, they might not get counted. In the past, you had postal managers treating all election ballots the same, and certainly postal workers know how to flag mail-in ballots. The postal system knows how to do this. In 1864, we had a national election in the middle of a civil war. And 150,000 Union army troops voted absentee in the field. This gives you an idea of what this country can do when it uses its mail service to try to enfranchise as many people as possible.
Stanton: To ask a sort of fundamental question: Why does the Postal Service matter, and in particular, why is it important to American democracy in the 21st century? We have email now.
Rubio: I think the U.S. Postal Service matters as much as it ever did — as much now in the 21st century as when it was founded in 1775 as the United States Post Office. This is America’s original communications network. It began with in the 1790s with low prices for newspapers to go through the mail. The Postal Service has always been there connecting Americans and responding to their demands — needs like rural free delivery; they responded to the desire of people to communicate via letter mail by dropping rates in the 1840s and 50s; responding to consumers being gouged by private parcel carriers with its own parcel post; coming up with the idea of postal banking.
And it’s responding today to this pandemic not just by delivering goods every day at reasonable prices to people who depend on them — they’re the one carrier that will go everywhere because it’s not set up to be profitable, unlike the private carriers — but mail-in balloting is seen more and more as an important alternative to people having to get to the polling place on time for primary or election day. We’re looking at up to three-quarters of the voting population that would feel safer to vote by mail. The Postal Service is important for democracy.
And yet for all that it has innovated and helped develop America, there have also been ways that it has in itself compromised democracy. In 1802, the longest-serving postmaster general, Gideon Granger, convinced Congress to pass a law making postal work white-only. He was concerned that African-Americans would see themselves as [having] a government-worker status and therefore entitled to freedom. That didn’t change until the end of the Civil War. As democracy has grown over the years, so has the Postal Service. The Postal Service has never been some kind of neutral bystander; it has always been political.
Stanton: There’s a difference, though, between being political and being partisan. What do you mean by “it has always been political”?
Rubio: Well, it was founded as a government agency in 1775, and the postmaster general was a powerful political figure. In the old Post Office, it was always somebody appointed by the president — oftentimes a campaign [official]. Rarely were they career postal employees. They dispensed patronage. Beginning in 1829, they sat in with the Cabinet, but they did not have a formal Cabinet position until the Grant administration in 1872. Right up through the end of the post office as a federal department, this was a Cabinet position.
By the 1960s, the post office lagged behind technologically. Employee turnover on the eve of the 1970 nationwide postal wildcat strike was 26 percent. Pay was woefully low — I think $6,176 is what postal workers started out at in early 1970, and after 21 years, the most they could hope for was something like $8,400. It was running up deficits of close to a billion dollars a year. And eventually, there is a debate about how to reform the post office. That discussion actually started in the Johnson administration, with a presidential commission on postal organization — all CEOs and one labor leader. Their conclusion was that the post office needed to become more businesslike; if it was reorganized as a corporation, it would somehow be more efficient because of methods brought in from the private sector to maintain this universal service obligation that the Postal Service always had. Of course, I don’t think it occurred to people how much of a contradiction they would be saddling us with, having something that’s both corporation and government agency.
So we get into 1969, and President Richard Nixon picks it up. He appoints a new postmaster general, a Republican who worked on Nixon’s campaign in 1960. Both of them promote this idea of a postal corporation. And that would include full collective bargaining rights for postal workers. While postal unions had been around since the late 19th century, they only had lobbying rights; they did not have collective-bargaining rights. All they get to negotiate on are working conditions. Nixon, even though he did not have majorities in either House, signaled that he would veto any [reform] that was not his postal corporation. He would not provide any raises unless his postal corporation was passed. So in New York City, rank-and-file letter carriers struck on March 18, 1970. Keep in mind postal striking was — and still is — illegal. Conceivably, they could have been arrested, tried, convicted with jail time, given fines, lost their jobs and their unions could have been decertified. What happened, though, is really remarkable. They struck for eight days, and the Nixon administration realized they couldn’t fire them all, even though that was Nixon’s first impulse. Cooler heads prevailed. The Nixon administration made offers to the union presidents, who passed them on down to the strikers. The workers went back to work, feeling like they had won something — none were fired. And they began negotiating and actually got most of what they wanted, except Nixon did get his postal corporation. He signed the Postal Reorganization Act 50 years ago this week: August 12, 1970.
Stanton: So the Postal Service, certainly Nixon saw it through a political lens‚ maybe even a partisan one. But it also seems that there wasn’t this sort of fundamental question as to whether or not the postal service was necessary. And that seems like a notable difference between then and now.
Rubio: You nailed it. There was bipartisanship [on this issue]. And that assumption [that the postal service was essential] was never questioned until after 1970, after we had a postal service. You could start to see conservative forces and private carriers — FedEx started in 1971 — starting a campaign to privatize the Postal Service. In the 70s and 80s, you see a growing ideological campaign promoting this narrative that the post office is an unfair monopoly, that it’s a dinosaur — and this is before the first e-mail has even been sent.
Stanton: In the 1970 strike, was there public outrage about the mail slowing down or not being delivered, and did that put pressure on politicians to act?
Rubio: I think it’s one of the reasons why the Nixon administration moved so quickly to let these strikers know that they sympathized with their demands and that they would negotiate with them once they returned to work. Because the mail had not only slowed down, but come to a halt in many cities, starting with New York. The financial industry ground to a halt. The publishing industry. Checks weren’t going out. Draft notices weren’t going out. It was coming up on April 15th, and the IRS was looking at income tax returns not coming back.
What I don’t think the Nixon administration counted on was the amount of sympathy people had for postal workers. You could really see how much they identified with their letter carriers. A Gallup poll showed a 61 percent approval for the postal workers who were striking and holding up their mail.
Stanton: It sounds like now there is a potential political risk for President Trump and any member of Congress who goes along with his plan to not adequately fund the postal service.
Rubio: In normal times, you would expect that any politician would be really leery of slowing the mail down. You’re hearing outrage across the country. But we’re seeing the Trump administration digging in and Republicans falling in line behind them. I think we’re seeing the dominance ideology has over logic, to the point where anyone would support a slowing down of vital service like the Postal Service. But, you know, we are just talking about politicians, we aren’t talking about the general public. And if the general public weighs in with the kind of outrage that we’re just starting to hear, that could cause the kind of pressure we need to get the postal service functioning more like it really should to help protect democracy and maintain the service that people expect every day.
Stanton: You mentioned Andrew Jackson firing post office employees over their politics. In that sense, I suppose that what we’ve seen in the last couple months — with the appointment of a new postmaster general who is a donor to President Trump — is part of a tradition in terms of political patronage. For much of the last several decades, the U.S. postmaster general is oftentimes a career USPS person — someone who has worked as a letter carrier. What changes when you pass up or reshuffle that sort of institutional knowledge within USPS?
Rubio: After 1970, in the first decade of the Postal Service, you had people from private industry who brought in their ideas about how you how you should manage a business, and trying to apply that to a public service. There’s a change from the service culture towards a business culture.
The last four postmaster generals have been career employees. And while they’ve seemed to be more sympathetic towards the idea of our postal service — Megan Brennan, the last postmaster general, resisted President Trump’s pressure to raise rates on Amazon — in many ways, they have participated in an attempted or gradual downsizing of the Postal Service. The two postmasters general before Brennan, John Potter and Patrick Donahoe, both proposed to eliminate Saturday delivery, closed mail-processing plants, closed post offices, cut hours, cut retail window times. And this has really ramped up with Postmaster General DeJoy doing things like delaying mail and eliminating overtime.
Stanton: One final question: If we can pull back, what do we lose if the post office sort of withers and falls apart?
Rubio: We lose an essential infrastructure. We lose not only the heart of our communications network, but the center of our mailing industry — a $1.6 trillion dollar industry that employs 7.3 million people. It’s what connects people. And it’s what connects them in national disasters, and certainly with the pandemic, enabled people to shop or be able to get [medical] tests or access ballots.
The promise of the Postal Service is still there. I think it’s ingrained in American culture. It’s something I could see firsthand in my 20 years carrying mail, first in Colorado and then in North Carolina: That I’m putting on the uniform and bringing things addressed to people, things of value to them, and then, in turn, picking up things they entrusted me with.
It’s a government institution people depend on. And there’s no replacing it. The kinds of attacks being done on it right now, most of them can be undone. But the farther we take it, it really is gone. And I think that would be a really bad day for the United States.